Toward a New City

18 November 2013 Comments Off on Toward a New City


For those of you who read my last piece, this week is about another Jane.

Thanks to an elective I’m taking, my life has been filled with ideas about cities, and the way we  live. It’s common to discuss whether humanity is taking the right course, where we’re headed. There are many dinner table discussions and academic ponderings about how to save ourselves from the current, doomed trajectory we’re on. You know what I’m talking about. The issue can broached from all sides: economics, politics, healthcare, education….

I now know that this idea  also relates to cities, and city planning. More often referred to as urban planning, it’s often thought to be a field that’s all about creating huge city plans from scratch. My mother is in this field, and eight times out of ten, when I tell someone this, they say, “Oh, does she plan new cities?” No, she does not. In reality, the most important part of urban planning is using what we already have, instead of building more that we can’t handle.

Right now, cities, our primary habitat, are thought to be dysfunctional. They do not work. They do not provide healthy environments for people to carry out their lives happily. Whether this is their fault or not is debatable. Cities are certainly not solely to blame. What we are and how we live are made up of so many things, affected at the daily level by so many factors. For example, we have to work to earn money to live on. To go to work, we get out on the street. Or at least we should, logically speaking.

Which brings us to Jane Jacobs. Jacobs was a journalist in the mid-twentieth century who eventually focused on cities and why they do not work. She was one of the first to point out, in that age of growth and prosperity after the war, that maybe the growth wasn’t in the right direction. I’m guessing it helped that she wasn’t trained to be a planner or a sociologist. At that point in time, development was about modernizing: creating the individual. Trying to embrace the one person, sometimes at the cost of taking them out of their social context. Jacobs, as someone off the street, could see beyond the conjectures and theories. She could see the reality of the people who lived on those streets. Cities, like everything else that had been blown out of scale for the past two centuries, were in fact for people.

Her main focus was safety. What makes a city safe is the people living in it, the active participants. The police can only go so far; there needs to be an inherent system within the fabric of the community that prohibits crimes or delinquencies. A healthy community regulates itself into good behavior; it is the external dangers that law enforcement has to worry about. This works well for a small town, where everyone knows each other. It does not work for a city full of strangers.

Cities are defined by the presence of strangers. This is why they’re considered scary, or dangerous. However, this is also why they are the birthplaces of great ideas, great works, great acts of humanity that can truly unite us. Diversity brings richness. This is why we have to change our focus: the solution does not lie in transforming cities into towns, eliminating what defines this great habitat. Instead, it lies in making it work. As all kinds of movies and inspiring books preach to us, we must not avoid the challenge — we must find a way.

According to Jacobs, “the way” is to get “eyes on the street.” Individuals in the community have to be able to see what’s going on their doorsteps, without being afraid to go out there. Part of the way to accomplish this is by organizing cities to have mixed-use buildings. So, instead of industrial districts containing only factories, or suburbs that are nothing but houses, we have the functions of living, working and shopping  all going on in the same place. The single-use areas only live during certain parts of the day. They’re deserted for the others, so if something happens, a person in trouble cannot be seen or rescued in time. There needs to be more than one type of structure in any urban area, despite what the great Le Corbusier — and more to the point, Ebenezer Howard — contended. As much as I appreciate Le Corbusier’s architectural innovations, and how much he shaped modernism as we know it, I find it hard to trust a man who calls himself “the” anything a hundred percent.

Of course, simplifying is a great thing, and that is what these men suggested. However, Howard and Le Corbusier, and many, many other planners and architects, claim that we must separate functions to simplify. From my viewpoint, though, it’s more about bringing the scale we work in to a more basic level. We must remember that the buildings and landscapes we are designing are intended for humans, the tallest of whom is 2.51 meters. These people need to be able to walk to the store to buy bread and milk, so the distances have to be shorter: denser cities. Denser cities make for less car transport, and more people: more eyes on any given street. Who enjoys an hour-long bus ride to get to school and back, every day? I certainly don’t.

There is a fine balance between all of the principles I just mentioned. For example, cities should be dense without being full-on vertical. How do we do that? We work at it. I recently read a piece of time-management advice: if you are scared of an assignment, start. You never know how long it’s going to take, or what you’ll need, until you physically start doing it. That’s what we have to do with our cities, or with any type of change on this huge a scale: we have to dig in, and cross each bridge when we get to it.