The Death and the Life of Smart Cities

Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a classic, one every urban planning undergraduate has read and one I read approximately two months ago because I was too busy reading Maxwell and co as an undergrad. The book was released in 1961 and puts forward a community-centred, bottom-up view of cities, in contrast to some of the views of city planning which essentially view the process as creating some giant intricate artwork that looks like a beautiful futuristic park from space and, as Jane Jacobs argues, is unlivable – or at least is misaligned with the processes of living in a modern city.

What surprised me most about this book is how modern it feels, specifically the way that her discussions and writing connect with ideas of complexity. She explicitly cites Warren Weaver’s lovely 1948 paper on complexity (which I’ve written about before), but it seems more likely that this was an addendum to her existing thought than a main inspiration. That’s because Jane Jacobs writes with an enthusiasm from firsthand observation and ideas generalised from experiences of living in cities, seeing the effects of planning decisions, and being involved in community actions which resist and mould top-down implementation policies. The book is packed with practical detail and description, and while a criticism that has been levelled at the book is it’s extrapolation from anecdote rather than generalised data, it makes the complex comprehensible. It can also be a bit dull, if you’re not interested in the intricacies of the planning process in New York City in 1960, but we’re not here to read Malcolm Gladwell and drink beer.

There are a number of interesting complexity-flavoured concepts at the heart of this book. Most well-known are her four “generators of diversity”: mixed use (to generate a variety of visitors at different times of day); short blocks (to improve the permeation of people through an area); mixed-age buildings (to allow smaller/larger businesses to rent the older/newer locations); and density. Equally important is the central question of why diversity is good in the first place. What’s just as interesting to me is the idea that, in a city, strangers to an area are good, that they provide more “eyes on the street” which improves safety, as well as potentially adding to the superficial social mix of the city street. To Jane Jacobs, the City Street is key – it’s the place where people interact and transact, it’s not just a conduit to getting somewhere better as quickly as possible. In a chapter on city parks, you get the sense that they’re being judged by the same standards – can we make parks places where people chat, sit, “hang out” like they would on the street. Again, the life and quality of life of these locations is only imbued by people being there – and to that end, you need some critical mass of local population, you need some motivation for people to travel to visit – but not so much that the street is a scrum in the daytime and then deserted at night – you need people to mix freely and make each block, to one extent or another, a social space. This, to her, is what a “good” city looks like.

It’s very clear, then, that the city is a ground-up phenomenon. And she talks again and again about the need for city districts to wield some kind of political power, through the participation of its residents to push back against larger initiatives “coming down from above”. Edward Glaeser’s popular 2011 book “The Triumph of the City” takes some of its cues from Jacobs – the “life’s rich tapestry” view of what makes cities great – but focusses much less on this aspect, making for a less rewarding read. Glaeser himself has made some fair criticisms of Jacobs, notably that she’s extrapolated an awfully long way from her own experiences. Certainly, her concept of participation in and kickback against planning decisions will have been informed by her time, place, class, etc. And her concept of “unslumming” is a bit tricky. Now I don’t know too much about this, so I’m not going to dwell, but an area getting nicer to live in tends to lead to gentrification and poorer residents getting forced out. From The Death and Life… it seems clear that this wasn’t what she had in mind, but where the dividing line is is less clear to me.

I’d be curious to know what she would think about the current “smart cities” thinking. On one hand, the technologies developed in the last fifty years mean there are now ways to capture individual “preferences” (well, movements, or purchases, let’s say) with an incredible richness. This could be great for feeding back community perspectives about how they are using their city or part of the city, backed up with rich and detailed data. Or it could just be a way for top-down planners to come to their own conclusions. In this, complexity and democracy chime – the order and structure of social processes arise from interaction between a system’s individual elements, human beings, perhaps with some additional mechanisms of aggregation. What do smart cities and models of complexity look like with these feedback mechanisms – not aggregating knowledge to the top, but churning it down at the small-group, small-geography, or individual level? What expertise do these groups need to process this information, and who can provide it? If we could answer some of these questions, maybe we could make a city not only smart – but great.

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