Happy Birthday Jane Jacobs! (Now Let’s Have A Debate)

Jane Jacobs

1. This week I wrote three articles: one for Governing Magazine about how to make pedestrian malls successful; and two for Forbes—about how Syracuse is squelching a driveway-sharing app, and the latest attempts from San Francisco NIMBYs to stop a Warriors arena.

2. Today would have been Jane Jacobs’ 99th birthday, and I know many of you celebrated by attending (or hosting) Jane’s Walks in your cities. Because of other obligations, I wasn’t able to attend the Miami one, which was hosted in Little Havana by local realtor Carlos Fausto Miranda. If any of you did, tell me how it went.

3. I hate to use Jacob’s birthday as an excuse to seem divisive, but there’s something about her writings—and the way they’re interpreted—that I want to explore:

The thing that’s always made Jane Jacobs’s work so refreshing is that it has ideological crossover appeal. But this has also caused different schools of thought to emerge about her.

The left-leaning among Jacobs’ fans emphasize her work on urban form. Jacobs’ favorite neighborhood was her home base of Greenwich Village, and living there inspired her vision for other neighborhoods. As she brilliantly explained throughout The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the ones that functioned best had traditional street grids, human-scale buildings and parks, a mix of old and new architecture, and pedestrian accessibility. These elements of her teaching have been embraced by New Urbanists like Andres Duany, who have built entire neighborhoods on her principles; and by “smart growth” planners, who take the next step by imposing historic overlays and “form-based codes” on urban areas. These latter moves are done to stave off modernization, which they see as threatening Jacobs’ aesthetic vision for cities.

But the right-leaning side of Jacob’s followers focus less on design, than on her economic teachings, many of which came in later works. They adore the woman who loathed central planning and land use controls, and who thought that the “organized complexity” of city life was best tackled through organic growth. Rather than advocating for new layers of regulation, then, conservatives view Jacobs as an early advocate of market-based solutions. This side is led by people like Edward Glaeser, a proponent of more skyscrapers. Although skyscrapers might be taller than Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood, he argues, they would be a Jacobian response to many cities’ housing shortages, and if designed properly, would generate the street life she described.

I’m not here to say that one side is right or the other wrong. Both Jacobs’ economic and design teachings—and the way they’ve been interpreted—have been mostly beneficial for cities. But I will say that the New Urbanist side has gotten more representation. If you think today of what someone means when referring to a “Jane Jacobs-style neighborhood,” you picture a medium-density area with historic character, pocket parks, and niche coffee shops—places like Greenwich Village, The Haight in San Francisco, Capitol Hill in Seattle, Wicker Park in Chicago, or Boston’s Back Bay. Meantime, large-scale neighborhoods—such as a typical downtown business district—are considered antithetical to Jacobian urbanism, and are frowned upon by planners.

I wish this perception would change, though, because high-rise neighborhoods play a role in cities that Jacobs would have appreciated. As I wrote on this site several weeks ago, the Miami neighborhood of Brickell—which is an overnight skyscraper zone that would have Glaeser beaming—is essential to the city’s economy, providing housing, offices, and recreation for the ever-important banking industry. It has also helped preserve surrounding downtown neighborhoods, by containing the city’s banking wealth to a small area, rather than having it inflict gentrification elsewhere. While Brickell doesn’t yet have great pedestrian infrastructure, the neighborhood’s sheer density has made it (as Glaeser would have predicted, and Jacobs would have liked) one of the city’s most active around the clock.

Yet I can’t imagine Brickell ever being the subject of a Jane’s Walk. There is something about the neighborhood’s sensibility—corporate, wealthy, glossy, neo-liberal—that doesn’t gel with Jacobs’ left-wing faction. However, Brickell and other skyscraper neighborhoods are essential in helping cities grow and stay competitive in a global economy. True fans of Jacobs should see the value of encouraging (or at least allowing) such neighborhoods, as a compliment to the more traditional-style ones.


2012 Market Urbanism Meetup


We are going to have a reader meetup on May 5. It will be a format similar to last year. Market Urbanism friend, Sandy Ikeda will be giving a tour of Brooklyn Heights as part of the Jane Jacobs Walk program that celebrate’s the life and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs. Sandy’s tour was so popular last year that he is giving two tours this year. In fact, the tour was so compelling, I moved back to the neighborhood. (well ok, that wasn’t the only reason)

Let’s plan on attending Sandy’s tour from 4:30-6:00 pm on Saturday, May 5th. The tour starts at the steps of the Brooklyn Borough Hall. After the tour, we’ll convene at the Henry Street Ale House at 62 Henry Street, near where the tour ends.

This year, Stephen is a genuine Brooklynite, so you’ll have the opportunity to meet him. Unfortunately, Emily won’t make it to town this year. Sandy will probably also join us.

Last year, I assumed I’d be the only 6′-5″ person there, so that’s how I told people to identify me. However, there was another person about the same height on the tour, so readers said they weren’t sure which one was me. The best way I can assure that doesn’t happen again is to wear a White Sox baseball cap. What are the odds of two of us?…

May 5, 2012
Walking Tour: 4:30 PM at Brooklyn Borough Hall
Meetup Afterwards: 6:00 PM at Henry Street Ale House, 62 Henry Street

Hope you can make it. See you all there!


PS. In case you are interested, there are many other Jane Jacobs Walks that weekend. For example, this year there will be a Jane Jacob’s Walk tour of the area around the Atlantic Yards site given by Norman Oder. That should be interesting for Market Urbanists…

Meetup before Sandy’s Jane’s Walk this Sunday

From the comments and emails I’ve gotten, there will be a pretty decent turnout of Market Urbanists at Sandy Ikeda’s Jane’s Walk on Sunday, “Eye’s on Brooklyn Heights.”

Here are the details from the site;

Date: Sunday May 8, 2011

Time: 1:00pm-2:30pm

Meeting Place: The tour will meet at the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall (2nd stop on the #2/3 subway) and end at the Clark Street station of the #2/3 subway.

One reader suggested we meet for beers beforehand, and recommended The Henry Street Ale House

Let me know how that works for others. Now that I’m thinking about it – we may want to meet closer to Borough Hall where Sandy is starting the walk. O’Keefe’s on Court Street may work better:

I’ll plan for noon – if you plan to be around earlier, shoot me an email.

The best way to spot me is my height: 6′-5″. Or shoot me an email, and I’ll give you my phone number.

More Libertarians on Jane Jacobs

The Ludwig von Mises Institute publishes a podcast performed by Jeff Riggenbach called “The Libertarian Tradition”, which discusses significant figures in the libertarian movement.  The most recent edition is dedicated to Jane Jacobs, who’s ideas are highly regarded by many libertarians, despite the fact that she publicly distanced herself  from being associated with the term or movement.  It’s a great listen, and mentions fellow Market Urbanists and friends of the site, Sandy Ikeda and Thomas Schmidt.  It’s great to see more attention given to Jane Jacobs and urbanism by free market advocates.

Mises Podcast on Jane Jacobs

On a similar note, Market Urbanist, Sandy Ikeda will be hosting a “Jane’s Walk” in honor of Jane Jacobs in Brooklyn Heights.  Here’s a description from the site:

Eyes on Brooklyn Heights

The beautiful and historic neighborhood of Brooklyn Heights offers excellent examples of Jane Jacobs’ principles of urban diversity in action.

Beginning at the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall, we will stroll through residential and commercial streets while observing and talking about how the physical environment influences social activity and even economic and cultural development, both for good and for ill. We will be stopping at several points of interest, including the famous Promenade, and end near the #2/3 subway and a nice coffeehouse.

Please wear comfortable footwear and weather-appropriate clothing, and be sure to have lots of questions. See you there!

Date: Sunday May 8, 2011
Time: 1:00pm-2:30pm

Meeting Place: The tour will meet at the steps of Brooklyn’s Borough Hall (2nd stop on the #2/3 subway) and end at the Clark Street station of the #2/3 subway.

Host:Sandy Ikeda

Host Organization: Purchase College

Contact info:

I plan to attend.  It would be great to see some other Market Urbanists there!

Old Urbanist on the failure of Boston’s newest park

Old Urbanist is one of my favorite urbanist blogs (and not just because of the name), and Charlie’s got a post up about Boston that I think has a good market urbanist lesson in it. He describes how the formerly elevated Central Artery, buried by the Big Dig, was replaced with a park, with nobody seeming to understand that highways’ damaging effects comes from what they demolish – buildings, and lots of them. An excerpt:

With no one able to agree on anything in particular, the environmentalists of the late 1980s stepped in to offer the compelling alternative of nothing, packaged under the name “open space,” and obtained a requirement that 75% of the land above the buried highway be set aside for it.  The realization has only recently sunk in that even “nothing” must be paid for, as the conservancy tasked with maintaining the Greenway has now proposed taxing abutting property owners to raise funds, the largesse of Boston’s citizens, already maintaining several very large parks in close proximity, apparently falling short.  Thus, land that, under private ownership, might have provided millions of dollars in tax revenue to the city, and hosted thousands of jobs and apartments, has become a money pit.

The missed opportunity is even more tragic given that one of the very few neighborhoods in the United States laid out in truly traditional fashion, the North End, with its narrow winding streets and attractive mid-rise architecture, sits right next to the Greenway.  The blank side walls of 19th century townhouses, their adjoining buildings demolished for the Artery in the 1950s, cry out to be extended southwards by new neighbors.  The elusive vision is right there, a reality, not a fantasy, yet somehow it escaped the attention of Boston’s elected officials, planners, architects and the public itself.

On the day I visited, the North End was jammed with tourists snapping photos of the streets, students standing in long lines at pizza parlors, and many residents simply going about their daily business by foot.  The few on the Greenway were walking briskly either toward the North End or back the other way, and indeed, with such an extraordinary neighborhood so close by, the appeal of lying on a shade-less grass lawn between six lanes of roaring traffic loses any appeal it might have otherwise had.

It reminded me of this great comment by Benjamin Hemric on a post last year, in which he quotes Jane Jacobs on parks in Death and Life (emphasis Benjamin’s):

We can already see that city districts with relatively large amounts of generalized park, like Morningside Heights or Harlem in New York, seldom develop intense community focus on a park and intense love for it, such as the people of Boston’s North End have for their little Prado or the people of Greenwich Village have for Washington Square, or the people of [Philadelphia’s] Rittenhouse Square district have for their park. Greatly loved neighborhood parks benefit from a certain rarity value.

Even Jane Jacobs thought Houston doesn’t have zoning

“Houston has no zoning” is a very popular urban planning meme. It has its roots in Houston’s lacks one very specific kind of zoning: Euclidean separation of residential, commercial, and industrial uses. Euclidean zoning happens to be the one kind of planning that people easily understand (the whole meatpacking-plant-in-my-backyard fear), and so the usual panoply of density-inhibiting regulations (parking minimums, minimum lot requirements, FAR restrictions, etc.) is downplayed or even outright ignored, despite Michael Lewyn’s claims that Houston is in many ways more restrictive than even its Sun Belt neighbors.

But still, despite its pervasiveness, I was surprised to hear from commenter Alon Levy that in a 2001 interview with Reason Magazine, even Jane Jacobs was still laboring under the myth:

Reason: When the change comes, if it is an incremental, slowly evolving, uncontrolled sort of natural change, it’s easy for society to accommodate that, isn’t it?

Jacobs: Yes it is. But if all that zoning is kept, that can’t happen.

Reason: This is why I’m one of the few people you’ve met who likes Houston, because it has no zoning.

Jacobs: It has no zoning. But all the same, it looks like all the places that do have zoning. Because the same developers and bankers who deal with places that do have zoning carry their same ideas when they finance or build something in Houston.

Reason: There are not enough Houstons to change the way things are built or developed?

Jacobs: Right.

Maybe I’m just a sadist, but my favorite part of the interview was the first few pages where the interviewer tries to get Jacobs to support the usual libertarian “war on cars” line and she deftly avoids it. Finally, he thinks he’s gotten her when she says something bad about New Urbanism, but then it turns out that her issue seems more to be that New Urbanist communities aren’t really urban enough.

Links, links, links!

1. An bill that would replace New Jersey’s court-mandated patchwork of inclusionary zoning programs with a more uniform 10% affordable housing mandate has left advanced through its Assembly committee after passing the NJ Senate, though Chris Christie promised to veto it.

2. Last month I reported that Obama’s deficit commission may recommend paring back the mortgage-interest tax deduction. Well, the official plan is now out, and – good news! – it looks like completely doing away with the deduction is on the table.

3. The New Yorker reports on a Cooper Union exhibit that models what the area around the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway connecting the Holland Tunnel to the Williamsburg Bridge would have looked like if Jane Jacobs had lost and Robert Moses had won.

4. Even with $100 million in cash and hundreds of millions in tax-exempt bonds, Bronx Parking, which operates Yankee Stadium’s perennially under-used parking garage, still can’t turn a profit.

Correction, Reason.org’s Plug, and Glaeser on Jacobs

In the comments of my most recent post, insightful commenter, OldUrbanism pointed out some items that need attention:

The last two factors, legal costs associated with eminent domain and opportunity costs of land, are in fact often included in typical project cost estimates for both public and private projects. The former is fairly straightforward, as it is a project-related cost. The latter, opportunity cost of land, is simply the purchase price of land.

In the case of this example, where land acquisition costs are assumed as part of the project cost, OldUrbanism is exactly correct. I’m truly embarrassed for being sloppy in that statement and will correct it.

Of course, I still stand by my exposure of the ignorance of land opportunity cost by those who assert that existing highways “pay for themselves.” I invite you to check out the discussion of that matter (and other items) with OldUrbanism in the comments of the post.
The other day, Reason Foundation’s Samuel Staley had some very generous things to say about Market Urbanism:

I just ran across the Market Urbanism web site, and it has a lot of really good analysis and resources available for anyone following urban policy issues. The sub-title of the web site is “Urbanism for Capitalists/Capitalism for Urbanists”. The blog includes lots of references to F.A. Hayek, free markets, and even takes the Cato Institute to task for advocating “socialism for roads.”


This site is well organized and designed. I think it’s a great addition to the debate and discussion, and its refreshing to see a new voice enter into the fray.

Thanks Samuel!! I share Reason’s objective of “Free Minds and Free Markets.”

I just have to admit I found it a little ironic that he had such nice things to say after I blasted reason.org on twitter for their recent pro-government infrastructure pieces (here, here and here).
Ed Glaeser wrote a book review for the New Republic discussing his mixed opinions towards Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. Of course, my opinions of Glaeser’s piece are also mixed: wrong on infrastructure, right on NIMBYism.

Tyler Cowen and Matt Yglesias also chime in.