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Archive for the ‘Death and Life of Great American Cities’ Category

D&L 19 – Narrow streets and visual order

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Chapter 19. Visual order: its limitations and possibilities

I’ve obviously unfortunately fallen behind on Death and Life for quite some time, due in large part to my time away. While I’m now caught up on reading with the book club and have certainly enjoyed the discussion, I’ll just jump back in with this very quick post.

Given my time away in London, I was intrigued when Jacobs mentioned “European visitors” and their remarks “that the ugliness of our [American] cities is owing to our gridiron street systems.” She goes on to say the grid system is responsible for these endless vistas that break any sense of enclosure and visual coherence, suggesting that we can add additional streets or invoke topographical barriers and landmarks, natural or not, to create a sense of visual separation.

As I live in a metropolis that is simultaneously one of the most relentlessly gridded in the US and one of the flattest — when I worked out in Hoffman Estates, on a clear day I could see the Willis Tower, which was thirty-five miles away — I of course had to think about what this meant here. It is true that some of the streets, such as Clark St up in Andersonville/Edgewater, for example, that meander gently out of the grid are more interesting “on the ground.” And I certainly miss Los Angeles’ dramatic mountainous backdrop. But, alas, you can’t go adding new streets or certainly new mountains any time soon.

It seems to me that another way to introduce this sort of visual diversity is to have narrower streets; as the buildings cluster together closer and the horizon doesn’t seem as far away, reducing that negative “endless” feeling. Plus, a narrower street results in both sides of the street “cooperating” together more. Instead of feeling as if the buildings on one side are totally unrelated to the buildings on the other, they work together to form a coherent visual whole. If perhaps you can’t narrow a street — after all, some of our most beloved streets are grand boulevards à la Michigan Avenue — I think you either need to add some visual element to the middle like planters or medians, or ensure that the buildings on either side are tall to help overcome that separation.

This always strikes me when I walk down the significantly wider Ashland or Western compared to Damen down here in Wicker Park/Bucktown. There are many differences, particularly in commercial density, between the two streets, but it always seems to me that Damen has a stronger sense of visual cohesion precisely because it’s not as staggeringly wide as the other two thoroughfares.

Written by Andrew ACG

April 6, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L 7: How cities (and suburbs) foster diversity

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Chapter 7. The generators of diversity

This is a fairly short chapter, and I am about to embark on a week-long trip, so I’ll keep this relatively brief. While the last several pages of the chapter reference the four generators of diversity, the bulk of the chapter discusses how “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds.”

This fundamental message — from an economic perspective, big cities are more than the sums of their parts — is strikingly on point; I’ve have seen it echoed in more recent publications. Ryan Avent’s Gated City, which I read several months ago, cites Vietnamese restaurants as an example of the kind of diversity that only big cities can support: small towns and cities can only support businesses with relatively mass-market appeal (and, unless you are in southeast Asia, this is probably not a Vietnamese restaurant); on the other hand, a large city can support multiple Vietnamese restaurant because of the collection of people together. Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City makes a similar, broader point that the value of cities in civilization is in the sheer concentration of human capital.

Other parts of this chapter are unfortunately less perceptive in hindsight, in particular Jacobs’ dismissal of “the much-heralded postwar exodus of big offices from cities” as “mostly talk.”. She touts how Connecticut General Life Insurance Company’s move to a headquarters “in the countryside beyond Hartford” — aka the CIGNA campus in Bloomfield, Conn. — required them to build “inherently inefficient” facilities, contrasting this negatively to the shared facilities available in the big city that companies therefore don’t have to build.

As we all well know, decentralization of office space into the suburbs has proceeded rapidly since Death & Life‘s publication year of 1961. Suburban office space* forms about 40 percent of total office space in metropolitan New York and about half in Chicagoland and greater Boston; about 70 percent in greater Atlanta and 85 percent in South Florida. As I mentioned earlier this week, I’ve been reading Rybczynski: one of his critiques of Jacobs is that she essentially ignores the postwar migration to the suburbs. Here, she may not have ignored it, but she was perhaps a little bit blind to upcoming trends.

Overall, though, this chapter’s role is as an opening salvo to the four arguably most important chapters of the book. In that respect, it sets the stage well. We’re convinced of cities’ roles in fostering diversity — even if, perhaps, their monopoly on generating this diversity has been ceded to the suburbs quite considerably since Jacobs’ time — and we eagerly anticipate the explanation of the factors that create this diversity.

*These exclude downtowns, secondary downtowns and “urban envelopes” in the report linked to. While some of the office spaces is located in edge cities such as Naperville, Ill., most of these Naperville-like edge cities would almost certainly not be perceived as a city by Jacobs, and much of the employment is located outside of walkable areas of these municipalities, if they have one. Most of Naperville’s office development, for example, rings I-88 and is not found in the central, pedestrian-friendly core of the city.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L 5: Sizing up Chicago’s Wicker and Lincoln parks

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Chapter 5. The uses of neighborhood parks

I’ve written about parks before — in fact, my last post before joining the book club was on an access park to the Bloomingdale Trail to be built at Milwaukee and Leavitt. But after reading chapter six of Death and Life, I felt like I’d like to take a fresh look at some other parks. So given the various design criteria that Jacobs uses to identify successful city parks, I thought I’d focus in on two fairly successful Chicago parks and their relation to these qualities.

Jacobs writes:

Intricacy that counts is mainly intricacy at eye level, change in the rise of ground, groupings of trees, openings leading to various focal points–in short, subtle expressions of difference.


Good small parks typically have a place somewhere within them commonly understood to be the center–at the very least a main crossroads and pausing point, a climax…People try hard to create centers and climaxes to a park, even against odds. Sometimes it is impossible. Long strip parks, like the dismally unsuccessful Sara Delano Roosevelt park in New York and many riverside parks, are frequently designed as if they were rolled out from a die stamper.

Wicker Park (roughly 600 x 650 x 850 ft)

I’ll start with my neighborhood park, Wicker Park. It’s fairly small at four acres, near the geographical center of the neighborhood it names. The triangular park boasts a playground, field-house and fountain in the western half, with a baseball field and a dog run in the southeast corner. In the summer and early fall, it hosts a farmer’s market.

I’ve found that usage of the park clusters near the western sidenear Damen Ave, even when the baseball diamond is not in use (and is thus free to other park users). It comes down to the intricacy criterion that Jacobs identifies: in the park’s western half, the playground, field house and fountain provide a sense of variety and diversity. And Chicago is known for being a resoundingly flat city (distressingly so to my Los Angeles-raised self), but the paths and stairs up to the fountain work to create a sense of elevation and difference.

As for centering, the fountain provides a fairly viable example — particularly on days with good weather, but even in the middle of winter, I see people reading, eating, chatting on the benches around the fountain and dozing or people-watching from the patches of grass within the circle encircling the fountain. Interestingly, in Jacobs’ discussion of Corlear Park, she notes that the ball field is among the “demand goods,” the most used part of that park. I’ve had the opposite experience in Wicker Park: aside from the days when I see a ball game being played, I usually see individuals clustering closer to the western edge.

Wicker Park is a good example of Jacobs’ neighborhood parks with good design: people instinctively surround the fountain as a centering element and cluster in those parts of the park that offer a varied and different landscape. It is also small enough and unique enough in the neighborhood that it is prized by the surrounding community as an area of green space.

Lincoln Park (about 5 1/4 mi long)

When I happened upon Jacobs’ mention of “long strip parks,” I immediately thought of Lincoln Park, the namesake of the affluent North Side neighborhood. Stretching from North Ave to Ardmore Ave — a distance of over five miles — the park is three hundred times larger than Wicker Park at 1,208 acres, stretched between Lake Michigan and a wall of buildings to the west.

On paper, Lincoln Park would seem to have some faults. It’s by definition a long strip park that doesn’t really have a center (about halfway up its length, the park is essentially bisected by Belmont Harbor). It’s separated from the lakefront by the quasi-expressway of Lake Shore Drive.

But Lincoln Park is indubitably one of the city’s most successful parks. It’s the second-most visited park (PDF: pg. 28) in the United States with 20 million visitors a year, which is particularly evident in the summer. The park certainly boasts many “demand goods” that Jacobs identifies at the end of the chapter — the zoo, marinas — but the park continues to see pretty heavy general use.

I think the key here is that the park isn’t just a long stretch of land along the lake but that in many ways it acts as a series of individual, smaller parks strung together. People certainly do use the Lakefront Trail (which stretches southward beyond this part of the city) from north to south; I’ve walked much of it myself.

But the park escapes the curse of those “long strip parks” that Jacobs mentions because it doesn’t feel like an endless unrolling identical pattern. While it’s difficult to identify a center for the whole park, different segments are delineated by elements such as the ponds, the zoo, the nature sanctuary and the marinas. And then within each o these sections, there’s a strong sense that it’s a coherent park.

The presence of the lake certainly helps, of course — but as we’ve seen in other lakefront and riverfront parks, the mere presence of water doesn’t guarantee a park’s success. I’ve certainly spent enough time on Manhattan forgetting that it’s an island, even when I’m very close to the water. At the same time, a large weakness of these types of lakeside parks is that by necessity they draw all traffic from one direction: in this case, largely from the park’s west (and from the north and south on either end), which could have doomed the foot traffic because there’s not really a compelling destination on the other side. Lincoln Park avoids this by not only being intricately designed, but by being “thin” enough that in most parts of the park one never feels too far and unsafe from the city and the lively sidewalk street life that helps sustain that feeling of safety.

Chicago’s motto is urbs in horto, or “city in a garden.” When those “gardens” are done right, as Jacobs points out, they can add much to the vitality of the place, as Wicker and Lincoln parks do. I hope that in its future plans, the city can continue to build on this legacy.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 16, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L 4: City kids

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Chapter 4. The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children

The first semester of college, I could predict with almost certainty how the “where are you from” conversations would go:

A. Where are you from?
B. [City.]
A. Oh, where in [city]?
B. Well, I’m not actually from [city]*. I’m from {suburb name}, outside of [city].

And so forth. *New York being in general the largest exception as my alma mater, Yale, is less than two hours from Midtown Manhattan by train, and for various reasons New York boasts an extraordinarily large collection of very good (and very expensive) private schools.

Many of those individuals I met will have moved to big cities after graduation. Yet they all grew up in suburban America, probably far from any city sidewalk, and I bet that if you had asked their parents why they lived there, it was for the kids, the idea of “city children” being almost a contradiction in itself.

In chapter four of Death and Life, Jacobs looks at this very idea and more specifically at their play on the sidewalk. She argues that the knee-jerk reaction to shunting children off to playgrounds and off the sidewalks is misguided, amounting to a “deep contempt for ordinary people.” Playgrounds and play centers, she says, are often deserted and unsafe, in comparison to the lively sidewalk on which there are always eyes watching them.

It seems to me the essential point is that children are users of city sidewalks like everyone else. They appreciate the same virtues: vibrancy of action, diversity of uses and the central incubator of the fundamental lesson that “[p]eople must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.”

Of the three chapters on sidewalks, this is the one on which I have the least firsthand knowledge, having no children of my own. But I do wonder about the larger premise of this chapter: that children are users of city sidewalks just like everyone else (as mentioned in the previous paragraph), and by extension, city children, period.

I was born and raised in the suburbs as well (I fill in [Los Angeles] and {Cerritos} in the conversation above) and moved to the “big city” after graduation. Even temporarily putting aside the very large reason that many parents don’t move to the city — the American school system, which is the subject of its very own Death and Life book — it’s still hard for me to imagine growing up or raising children in the city: there’s no room to play! it’s not safe!

And this is exactly what Jacobs is addressing in this chapter. Children playing on city sidewalks will learn to socialize and relate to others like full members of society. Sending them off to isolated playgrounds may be the most dangerous act of all. And I have friends who grew up in big cities who did not turn out “pale and rickety…learning new forms of corruption” from day to day.

Nevertheless, raising children in the city still somehow seems like deviance from the “norm”. Ironically, this takes the form of either the child’s family being very poor (inner-city) or very rich (gentrified Manhattan). Part of it is probably cultural — there’s a very strong vein that the city is an unfit place to raise children. Part of it is that in many ways, it is perhaps easier to raise kids in the suburbs, in that it’s a very known lifestyle and is often carefully arranged to not have the delicate equilibrium that city sidewalks rely on. Part of it is certainly the environment in which I was brought up — familiarity is comforting.

And if we bring schools back into the equation, that takes out a whole lot of parents who would potentially like to stay in the city but are daunted by the educational prospects. There are success stories of urban schools, but not every parent is willing to or has the time and/or resources to improving their neighborhood school.

I know this has deviated, in some ways considerably, from what Jacobs is discussing in this chapter. But I can’t help reading it and thinking about the greater issues at hand, and wondering how it fits into the bigger picture.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 14, 2012 at 8:00 am

D&L 2-3: Sidewalks, gated communities and free speech

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Chapter 2 – The uses of sidewalks: safety
Chapter 3 – The uses of sidewalks: contact
I’m catching up to the book club this week, so I’m combining these two chapters in one post.

If there’s an overarching theme between chapters two and three of Death and Life, it’s the role of sidewalks in providing an incontrovertibly public space. Their very public nature of city sidewalks that both guarantees their safety and allows for a vibrant neighborhood life.

As Jacobs notes, there are three qualities that make a city sidewalk feel secure. There must be “eyes upon the street”; “users on it fairly continuously”; and “a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space,” with the spaces not “ooz[ing] into each other as they do typically in suburban settings.” This last characteristic made me pause for a bit, but a look as suburban settings in which public and private “ooze” (what a word!) into each other is illustrative.

Take the gated community, particularly prolific in the South and West. The sidewalks, if there are any, and streets of these communities are absolutely private spaces. Gates prevent other city or suburban denizens from walking, or more likely, driving in. And these these communities don’t do too well on the other criteria, either: there’s definitely no demarcation between public and private spaces; while buildings might superficially face the street, it’s really often the driveways facing the street; and there are rarely users on these sidewalks.

Yet these gated communities seem safe. (Whether they actually are safer is a matter of debate — the general conclusion seems to be that long-term crime rates are minimally affected, although violent personal crime may see a slight reduction.)

I think the key is that almost all of these communities are not city neighborhoods in the traditional sense — you almost certainly have to drive everywhere and there’s no commerce or any sort of vibrant street life by definition. One of Jacobs’ main points is that cities differ from towns and suburbs. While I don’t think this paradigm is completely true, this is one of the areas in which it is illuminated most strikingly. What works for ensuring safety in a gated community — heavy restrictions on access, an overwhelming dependence on vehicles, a lack of any sort of vibrant street life — doesn’t work on city streets and sidewalks.

I want to add that I’m not condemning those who choose to live in these communities. Among the faults of urbanists and planners, as Jacobs mentions in the Introduction, are a seemingly “top-down” approaches and moralistic judgments on where and how people choose to live. Rather, I think what’s important here is pointing out that in many ways, cities’ health is built on a specific equilibrium, and pulling in examples from other settings doesn’t always work.

As for chapter three’s discussion of sidewalks’ roles as places for public life and trust, I think Jacobs’ conclusions are drawn most illuminatingly again by contrast. Growing up in California, I often remember seeing signs in front of stores and shopping centers noting that solicitation was allowed by California case law — it was often explicitly stated the shopping area would certainly have prohibited it given the chance. The relevant case is Pruneyard Shopping Center v Robins (1980), in which the Supreme Court declared that citizens could exercise certain rights of free speech in private shopping centers, after the Pruneyard Shopping Center attempted to prohibit high school students from soliciting donations on private land.

While Pruneyard is centrally a free-speech issue, the motivations behind the case itself illustrate Jacobs’ conclusions.  She notes that city sidewalks play a crucial role in providing for an informal public life and for contact between individuals; they allow for public exchange to take place without encroaching on private life.

So how does this happen where there is very little sidewalk life, such as in many suburbs? One way is to try to take this public engagement to where the public has moved, and in many suburbs that is the Pruneyard-type shopping center. (The rights given in the case have been restricted in the past 30 years, and in general the court has seen more fit to restrict solicitation rights in front of individual stores instead of shopping centers.) People feel an instinctual need for the type of public-not-private life that they get in city sidewalks, and in many suburbs the shopping center is this place.

Looking forward, I’m excited to reread the chapters on children and parks — two topics in cities that so often inspire controversial discussion!

Written by Andrew ACG

February 10, 2012 at 10:46 am

D&L Introduction: in which I join the book club

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I have a shameful confession to make: I’ve never finished The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. As an urbanist and city enthusiast, it’s more or less expected that you will have read the book, even if you don’t agree with all the tenets in the book.

This is why I’m so excited that the City Builder Book Club has selected Death and Life as the book that they are jointly reading through the spring. I’m taking this opportunity to finally finish what is one of the central texts of the urbanist movement; since I only found out about it last week, I’m a little behind, but I’m posting on the Introduction now, will be posting on Chapters 2 and 3 later and should be on track by next week.

But to the Introduction: I’ll start, a bit contrarily, with the end. I’ve only lived in Chicago for a year and a half, but even after living here such a short time, I’ve sensed the 1895 World’s Fair and Daniel Burnham’s architectural legacy are ingrained in the municipal psyche. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve heard his apocryphal “Make no little plans.” And though it is certainly criticized, his Plan of Chicago, with its broad Parisian-style boulevards, lakefront open spaces and monumental city center, and its roots in the City Beautiful movement are often invoked as one of the most respected and important elements in Chicago’s planning history.

All this is to say is that it’s a little bit jarring when I arrived at the end of the Introduction to find Jacobs disdainful of the City Beautiful movement. She dismisses the City Beautiful movement as resulting in a “City Monumental,” resulting in grandiose monumental boulevards intended to serve as centerpieces of the city but ultimately failing in their venture. As she says, when the “fair became part of the city,” somehow the juxtaposition didn’t seem to work so well.

But I shouldn’t be surprised, and in a way, that’s the whole point of the Introduction. Much of this opening salvo is devoted to describing then-widely-accepted ideas of city planning and top-down municipal development that Jacobs clearly finds completely inimical to how cities actually work.

She touches relatively briefly (on pages 14 and 15 in my edition, the Vintage House tan-colored paperback) on her thoughts on diversity and the four essential conditions, but really, much of the Introduction is devoted to taking down ideas she doesn’t like, in preparation for what we assume will be the book’s carefully laid-out thoughts on what the city should look like.

The cognitive dissonance of the Boston planner who calls the North End the worst slum in the city yet appreciates the “wonderful, cheerful street life” in the summer; the combined fallacies of the “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” à la Lincoln Square in New York City; the essential idiocy of improving cities through completely anti-urban measures; and an apt comparison to the pseudoscience of bloodletting (which, if I’m not mistaken, shows up again in Donald Shoup’s The High Cost of Free Parking!) are all depicted in energetic fashion by Jacobs in this section.

And for me, as a reader, this works. Perhaps it’s easier to see this in hindsight, having observed the aftermath of much of the twentieth century’s misguided urban renewal efforts. I saw Cabrini-Green come down in pieces in the time I’ve lived in Chicago, have been to the cozy streets of Boston’s North End and have marveled at how we could ever think that Le Corbusier’s towers in the park could be livable.

But I think that even if I were reading this in the midst of its first publication, in the 1960s, without the benefit of New Urbanism and smart growth and all the developments of the 21st century, this Introduction is alluring enough and critical enough of accepted doctrine that I would be tempted to continue in, to find out what a city should really look like.

And so we’re off! Next up are chapters 2 and 3, on the use of sidewalks: contact and safety.

Written by Andrew ACG

February 6, 2012 at 9:47 pm