At first blush, the enterprise of interpreting the Jane Jacobs’ work might seem like one best left to the proud and peculiar few, or to put it less charitably, those of us with nothing better to do. Yet the forces of history militate against this apathy: Jane Jacobs has emerged as quite possibly the most important figure in North American urban planning in the second half of the twentieth century. Her work is now taught in every urban theory and urban planning program worth its weight in ESRI access codes. She is responsible for introducing hundreds of thousands of people to planning and urbanism (including this author) and continues to shape how many of us think about cities.
In one of my more popular blog posts here on Market Urbanism—and in a forthcoming book chapter—I argue that we should interpret Jane Jacobs as a spontaneous order theorist in the tradition of Adam Smith, Michael Polanyi, and F.A. Hayek. Built into her work is a profound appreciation of the importance of local knowledge, decentralized planning, and the spontaneous orders that structure urban life. Needless to say, this is not the prevailing interpretation of the importance and meaning of Jacobs’ work. Two very different alternative interpretations prevail. In this post, I argue that both interpretations are mistaken.
Jane Jacobs, Form-Based Coder
Many have taken Jacobs’ particular critiques of conventional U.S. zoning, often referred to as “Euclidean zoning,” as motivating a new form of zoning that takes into account her observations on design. In contrast to the mandates of Euclidean zoning, which proscribes land-use segregation and low densities, Jacobs celebrated mixtures of land uses and urban densities. Jacobs spends large sections of Death and Life discussing in detail particular urban designs that she sees as essential to fostering urban life. Much of “Part One” focuses on the design of parks, streets, and blocks, and the remainder of the book contains various thoughts on which design elements give rise to great streets and neighborhoods.
One response to this work has been the development of form-based codes or “transect zoning.” Unlike traditional Euclidean zoning codes which focus on land uses and densities, form-based codes treat scale and engagement with the street as the subjects of strict regulation. The “transect” concept refers to the theory that urban densities should gradually fall as the distance from the urban core increases. Elements of form-based codes have been implemented in major American cities such as Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Miami, though they virtually always retain some conventional regulations on land uses and densities. There is evidence that Jacobs might have been sympathetic to some elements of form-based regulation. Indeed, she takes a deep interest in how new development affects streets and neighborhoods from the pedestrian’s point of view. Wickersham (2001) rightly notes that Jacobs at various points suggests that an improved zoning code should foster a diversity of uses and aim to preserve old buildings.
Interpreting Jacobs as advocating for a new system of comprehensive form-based regulation, however, conflicts with both the theoretical approach underlying both her early work and her later writing on urban planning. Jacobs profiles lively, mixed-use, urban streets not as an end to be engineered and designed, but as a naturally emerging phenomenon that conventional zoning prevents. Note that some of this thinking even slips into the thinking of transect activists: at the risk of oversimplifying the thinking of transect zoning advocates, there is a clear implication that transect zoning is correct because transects represent a natural form of urban order. Yet if it is the case that transects naturally emerge, why must urban planners mandate them? As Garnett (2013) notes, form-based codes and transect zoning only serve to replace one particular imposed vision of urban development with another, adding a new layer of complicated jargon and bureaucratic review. Jacobs’ repeated criticism of standardization and central planning suggest that this is not what she had in mind.
Further evidence that Jacobs’ essential contribution is theoretical and broadly applicable rather than aesthetic and limited to cities can be drawn from her later work. While her later work turned to economics and the creation of “new work,” Jacobs clearly doubles down on the theoretical foundations she laid out in Death and Life. In the initial Earth Week Teach-In at the Milwaukee Technical College in 1970, shortly after the publication of her second book which expressed similar themes, Jacobs continues to reiterate her case for decentralizing planning both in cities and economies. She criticizes the economic policy of her day:
The pattern I see is that people who are in closest touch with practical problems are rendered powerless to solve them. Decisions are imposed from the top. Development is not permitted to emerge from below, and thus precious little of any real value is emerging anywhere. (Vital Little Plans, pp. 204)
The ongoing importance of local knowledge, decentralized planning, and spontaneous orders to Jacobs’ work is continually reiterated. In a lecture at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam in 1984, Jacobs again bemoans the dearth of decentralized planning—describing the well-function city “[as] place with a continually high birth rate of small, diverse enterprises” (VMT p. 254) and the ongoing power of “centralized expertise” in shaping economies and cities alike.
Happily, for our purposes, Jacobs regularly drew on this framework to discuss her specific views on zoning. Between the publication of Death and Life and 1961 and her passing in 2006, Jacobs regularly advocated for performance zoning, a form of zoning that focuses exclusively on the negative externalities of new development. At the 1970 event, Jacobs even articulated the key issues that such a performance zoning code should focus, including noise, pollution, scale, signs, traffic generation, and demolitions (VMT p. 216). “Under performance zoning, far greater freedom of land use could be permitted than is now the case, with superior results for the environment.” Given that her theory of urban growth and change militates against stricter top-down land-use controls, and her advocacy of performance zoning suggests a viable alternative to the status quo, there is little reason that Jacobs’ observations about urban design should be taken as a blueprint for any kind of form-based code or transect zoning.
Jane Jacobs, NIMBY
Others have taken Jacobs’ key contribution to planning to be her emphasis on citizen participation in conventional planning and the power of community groups to stop projects. Unlike with advocates of form-based codes, there is reasonably strong evidence from Jacobs’ life that she felt that too much change occurred without citizen input. As Flint (2011) notes, Jacobs’ now famous battles with Robert Moses created a framework for later NIMBY (“Not In My Back Yard”) efforts, including but certainly not limited to her 1952 fight to prevent a highway intersecting Washington Square Park. Beyond this battle, Jacobs helped to organize the community in resisting a number of large-scale projects from occurring in Greenwich Village using the tactics of endless public review and pressure on elected officials to kill projects.
An unsympathetic observer of Jacobs’ life and work might interpret this as the groundwork for the NIMBYism that would sweep America’s cities throughout the Quiet Revolution and block new housing construction. A sympathetic observer of Jacobs’ life and work might interpret this as a democratic model for how all urban development should unfold.
For the former reading—Jacobs as an unsympathetic NIMBY—it is helpful to interpret Jacobs’ activism in light of the circumstances of her time and her broader writing. Jacobs’ New York NIMBYism was primarily—but not exclusively—in opposition to projects designed and implemented top-down by conventional urban planners like Moses. In many cases these were public infrastructure projects, such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway, that would break up the urban fabric and displace thousands of residents. Yet even when they were public residential projects, they reflected a high modernist theory of how to revitalize a neighborhood, consuming entire blocks and dramatically remaking the neighborhood in a way that strictly private projects rarely can.
Note that in the single passage of Death and Life where makes Jacobs a clear call for some strict form of land-use regulation—she advocates for height limits—she immediately shifts back to celebrating relatively uncontrolled urban development: “The purpose of zoning for deliberate diversity should not be to freeze conditions and uses as they stand. That would be death” (D&L p. 253). While similar in means, this was quite different from the NIMBYism of today, whose ends are near total urban stagnation. Fighting a public redevelopment such as the Washington Square Village superblock is quite a different beast from fighting a new fourplex downtown. A celebration of unbridled change and entrepreneurialism permeates Jacobs’ work; interpreting her as the mother of all NIMBYs for her opposition to the high modernist projects of her time misses this point.
For the latter reading—Jacobs as modeling substantial public input on change— it is again valuable to draw a distinction between the challenges facing Jacobs in her time and the challenges facing cities today. Undertaking her work in the twilight of authoritarian high modernism in planning, it becomes clear why Jacobs thought bottom-up community organizing and public input were necessary to rein in its worst excesses. Some level of public input for projects that will completely remake the urban fabric makes sense—certainly for public projects, but even for private projects given their propensity for negative externalities is eminently reasonable.
What does not follow is that this kind of public process is necessary for every single change that takes places in cities, as NIMBYs today suggest. Aware that local knowledge matters in the aftermath of Jacobs and others, planning agencies today often coordinate public hearings and surveys to collect local knowledge. The trouble is that planners and policymakers often cannot distinguish between genuine local knowledge and what Harry Frankfurt describes as “bullshit,” or talk that serves some purpose other than knowledge sharing. As any regular observer of public meetings can attest, public comments can often mask nefarious motives such as racism and classism, and even when benign they can delay and often kill projects. The actual knowledge transfer isn’t from citizens to planners, but from irate special interests to elected officials, and the message is, “if you don’t kill this thing, we will vote you out.” Thus, while masked behind superficially Jacobsian rhetoric concerning local knowledge, the imposition of extensive public review onto every urban project has the effect of restraining truly decentralized planning and stunting the spontaneous orders that Jacobs spent her fifty-year career defending and celebrating.
Jane Jacobs, Rorschach Test?
It may very well be that Jane Jacobs is simply the ultimate urbanist Rorschach test, someone on whom we can each project our peculiar values and goals. She is just vague enough to be claimed by many different conflicting groups, a feature that I suspect is shared among great thinkers and writers. Indeed, the “Jacobs as Hardline New Urbanist” and “Jacobs as NIMBY” camps aren’t completely without basis; Jacobs seemed to have strong feelings about height limits, desired something like R6 density restrictions for Greenwich Village, and did occasionally fight private development proposals. The key question remains: how do we weigh these disparate pieces of evidence? Against these curious exceptions in her views and activism, we find a criticism of urban planning predicated on an appreciation of spontaneous orders (set out explicitly in the opening and closing chapters of Death and Life), a relentlessly critical attitude toward the very enterprise of zoning, and a lifelong appreciation of markets—one need not closely read Systems of Survival to realize she preferred the “Commerce syndrome” over the “Guardian syndrome.” Thus, we arrive at Jane Jacobs, spontaneous order theorist.