Skip to main content

Mere Orthodoxy exists to create media for Christian renewal. Support this mission today.

Urban Planning 101: Love and Study Actual Cities

October 11th, 2009 | 2 min read

By Jeremy Mann

This summer I interned at the field office of Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti. I spent the days taking calls from constituents, working to build support for a program that has reduced graffiti in the area by 82% in six years(!), and learning about city government. On my last day I facilitated a staff discussion on the introduction of Jane Jacobs’ study of urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It’s no accident that Jacobs leads with “Death” in the title:

Look at what we have built…low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels or dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore… This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

Jacobs’ book is a systematic indictment of orthodox modern city planning and architectural design, an orthodoxy that largely remains. In fact, one can read Jacobs’ book and never encounter temporal dissonance; despite the fact that it was published nearly fifty years ago, everything seems just as true today.

There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend—the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars—we could wipe our all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yesterday’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.

Jacobs’ criticism is not just one of arriving at different conclusions—whether cities ought to be built or rebuilt in this way or that way—but also one of methodology. While Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier, two patriarchs of modern urban design, began, bizarrely, with anti-city ideologies and theorized toward these ends, Jacobs begins with a love for cities and proceeds only by careful observation. A love for cities is as much a starting axiom as any. But from this love she makes progress through analysis of actual streets and neighborhoods, not just hypothesizing.

This I think speaks to the difference between honest and dishonest study, and the reason honest study can be trusted. Honest study depends on initial assumptions, but grows, developing knowledge and continuity with greater experience with the subject. Dishonest study becomes more and more theoretical and detached from the subject, because what is real about the subject often does not serve the ends of the student. Jacobs is intent on deep understanding of the subject itself:

It may be that we have come so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give. If so, there is little hope for our cities or probably for much else in our society. But I do not think this is so.