What Can We do With the City?

What Can We do With the City?


The Death and Life of Great American Cities is the kind of book which suggests a two-column discussion; one labeled right, one wrong. The author attacks city planners, architects, administrators, private enterprise, public works, reformers, utopians, bankers. She finds all city planning theory of modern times in error, whether it favors garden cities, cities beautiful, skyscrapers or detached single-story houses. She italicizes “The city cannot be a work of art.” The end result, in spite of excellent observations, reasonable recommendations, and a good heart is that Jane Jacobs’ book suggests we leave everything pretty much as it is except we paint the walls.

The author is no mere theorist—it was she that led the fight to “save” the West Village and when the New York Times reported her as saying that “in addition to a well-knit neighborhood organization the Committee had been successful because it had refused to discuss any planning whatsoever with the Planning Commission” she stated her position. I would maintain, it was not because the single goal of the Committee was to remove the “blighted” designation from the neighborhood that no planning was discussed, but rather that the existing plan, such as it is, is all the plan Mrs. Jacobs wants.

Her ideal city consists of small blocks so there will be plenty of corners to turn, for long blocks are boring. If you chopped all the 800′ long Manhattan blocks in half there would be twice as many corners to turn and things would be more interesting. Unlike LeCorbusier, who is simple minded and finds seven different kinds of streets from path to superhighway, the author sees all streets alike, only more of them. What a pleasure to have more curbs so that more cars can be parked, shining or grimy, forming the ideal foreground to the background of her street activity and architecture.

She finds the superblock an abomination. So it is when the architect designs buildings as if he were using a cooky cutter but the author does not question the reason why this is current practice. That a superblock can be designed so it has life and variety in the buildings and in the spaces around them, that the plan can foster community is, to her, obviously sheer fantasy. Equally fantastic, as she sees it, is to think of breaking the gridiron pattern by creating visual barriers (bridge building, for example) to close vistas, keep others open and in general plastically model space. Such handling of space might make a beautiful city but the city beautiful is not for us—probably unsafe, and probably immoral and decadent.