Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Some thoughts on Jane Jacobs, public space and more

This is an Abstract for a paper for an edited collection on tolerance and urban space. If the bullets and font don't repel, the content may....

Urban space and tolerance: a dissenting view
  • It would be hard not to agree with the proposition that the 20th century saw the apotheosis of intolerance. This was often manifested in spatial forms, from the Jewish ghettos of the early century European city to the black African townships of apartheid South Africa.  The most degenerate states used sophisticated spatial systems to organize and subordinate their populations: the Nazis via systems of urban and regional re-settlement, the Soviets via what we in shorthand now call the Gulag.  And in less punitive contexts, all societies have maintained segregation in myriad ways: through public housing allocations, through neighborhood covenants, by economic rationing—of housing and loans—and by plans that tear down communities, or place unwanted things in the least socially-organized parts of town .
  • It is generally accepted that urban space is a manifestation of broader social forces, and that the production of urban space is in large measure the reproduction of social space; consequently, the post WW2 political consensus sought to reshape some of these social processes [diminishing the most egregious examples of inequality] while the design professions attempted to bring their norms to bear upon the problem. This was an era of large-scale planning for housing, infrastructure and regional development: and as Burnham observed: make no small plans.    
  • This thesis produced its own antithesis in the form of Jane Jacobs.  She was enormously influential as a popular writer in the 1960s, arguing against the brutalism of urban planning, and for the organic city. She has actually become more academically influential in the past decade [according to citation analyses by Richard Harris], and from her we have internalized the ‘right to the city’ on the one hand, and the importance of public space on the other hand. Jacobs was not the first to argue that segregation is undesirable, but she may have been one of the first to argue that mixing in public space  was the mark of a successful city [‘crowds are good’] and the relation between a successful urban society and a vibrant public sphere.  
  • The problem with this thesis is that it was not the product of empirical testing but rather of her anecdotal experience in the older cities of the Northeast, and Greenwich Village in particular. Re-reading her classic work (cited tens of thousands of times), we see that Jacobs made a normative case for how people should behave, and although its sentiments have resonated with urban intellectuals for half a century, and continue to manifest themselves (most recently in the context of the ‘creative class’), they contribute to our inabilities to understand the city because we continue to put enormous trust in the redemptive power of public space.  Her work invokes nostalgia for rough and ready neighborhoods in dense urban environments where relatively homogenous families behave as successful social actors, but a little thought tells us how unusual this is.  The 1950s had left many blue collar neighborhoods intact as suburban drift occurred; we saw in the 1960s the deep social anxieties that were manifested in cities like New York as people were obligated to mix; three decades of gentrification have completely changed the social fabric of many cities, while, coming closer in time, we must remember that (in the US at least) we have become paralyzed by fear—of terror attacks, of epidemics, of child molestation—while at the same time labor participation for men and women, young and old, have changed, with the result that the very meaning of a neighborhood as a domestic place has been utterly transformed.  
  • We understand this intuitively but have built complex fables about how cities should be designed and how people should behave within them: the most strident of these normative arguments is found within New Urbanism, which pays a good deal of attention to some of Jacobs’ ideals.  This paper rejects such prescriptions on the grounds that they are not based on sound and coherent principles.
  • Some examples indicate that we have inconsistent ideas about how residential space ‘should’ be used.  
    1. Consider the examples of gays neighborhoods [in the Castro, in New Orleans and so forth]; between the Stonewall riot in 1969 and the first academic writings in 1982 [see Castells, 1982, 1983], gay men transformed themselves from one spatial solution (the closet) to another—the neighborhood.  In cities like San Francisco and New York, this permitted social mobilization at the local level and the first expressions of political power.  Gays did not stipulate the exclusion of others but did choose to visibly segregate themselves and transformed their social and political status in consequence.
    2. Consider the case of Orthodox Jews in suburban neighborhoods who seek to establish religious communities, build a synagogue and cluster within walking distance in order to observe the Sabbath.  Diamond [2000] indicates that relatively exclusive neighborhoods exist in many US suburban areas, including his case study of Toronto, where schools, businesses and homes are closely woven.
    3. Consider the examples of residential subdivisions marked by walls and sometimes by gates.  Gated communities are typically homogeneous in terms of house price and income and restrict access to the streets. 
  • Here then we have three examples of exclusivity, one defined in terms of sexuality, one defined in terms of religious observance and one defined in class terms. The first example has been frequently used as a progressive example of social mobilization; the second is described as a self-conscious attempt to establish social capital. The third context is always viewed as negative, contributing to urban fragmentation and threatening to “undermine the physical network of spaces that is essential to the exercise of democratic life and values” [Page, 2011].    
  • It is with the privatized residential landscape that we start to see the argument about social mixing and urban design beginning to unravel.  It has become an article of faith that gated communities are ethnically homogeneous and upper class, when the reality is otherwise; nor is there anything other than anecdotal evidence for the claim that they promote a collapse of democratic values [Kirby, 2008]. It remains though inconsistent to see some forms of exclusive neighborhood as progressive, and others as regressive. It must be the case that the ideal urban landscape is heterogeneous and that enclaves of any type must detract from that norm; and if that is not the case, then we must accept that enclaves of any sort are acceptable. …and that would necessarily undermine any argument about the redemptive power of urban public space.
  • In reality, we hold ourselves to very lax analytical standards in this context, which exposes the inconsistency of the conflation of tolerance with spatial arrangements.  Yet as this has come about due to normative, rather than analytical thinking, it is hardly surprising.   Fortunately, we are not obligated to maintain this equation.  What Page describes as an ‘alternative urbanism” does not require a return to a public sphere resting precariously upon an imagined public space.  Indeed, it is no longer necessary for the public sphere to have any connection with public space at all.
  • I do not want to repeat my arguments about the fragility of public space, except to re-state that the latter is subject to control by the state and is dangerous ground.  For every example that make the case for assembly [
    Tahrir Square
    ] there are many others that contradict it [Tiananmen Square], and it should be remembered that Egyptians took to the streets after their networks had formed and only when the Internet was blocked. 
  • Once we permit ourselves to overcome our spatial nostalgia, we can develop a powerful thought experiment about an alternative urban landscape.  By putting to one side our nostalgia for traditional downtowns and related public spaces, we can start to explore different kinds of relations. What would the city and its neighborhoods look like if, for instance, there were religious districts [rather than isolated places of worship] that served the city in the same manner as do sports complexes? What if social relations depended less upon face to face contact but more upon networks of interest maintained by social media and the like? What if more of our neighborhoods were structured by codes, as is the case in private subdivisions, where neighbors are held to certain standards of behavior regardless of their sexuality, religion, ethnicity or other source of difference (Kirby and Glavac, 2012).
  • The aim of this paper is to suggest that it is overly optimistic to believe that we can re-design our cities to a blueprint in order to produce a society of organic relationships. In other words, we cannot expect that certain kinds of neighborhoods or certain forms of public space will generate certain types of social relations—and, ironically, it was exactly that kind of mechanistic belief that Jane Jacobs opposed when she went up against spatial planning in the last century.  So, this paper argues strongly for tolerance but also argues for the recognition that if something is important to a society then it must be sought directly, not be indirect methods, and not least if the latter rest upon vague and uncertain principles.  The issue of homelessness and the treatment of the homeless is an excellent example:  the solution to the latter rests upon the provision of affordable housing, not upon ordinances for the manner in which those without shelter may, or may not, use public space.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bibliometrics and Urban Research


Global urban development was one of the significant innovations of the 20th century, changing both human and natural environments in the process.  Approximately 40 scholarly journals are dedicated to urban studies, but with over 3 billion people now living in cities worldwide, it is inevitable that topics with an urban dimension are published across the intellectual spectrum, in journals ranging from anthropology to zoology. 
As part of the development of a new meta-journal titled Current Research on Cities (CRoC)[1], we investigated the diversity of publication in urban affairs using keyword analysis and found three distinct spheres of ‘urban knowledge’ that contain some overlap but also significant differences.  

What we did

We explored the connectivity between the different branches of urban research in the following manner. First, we identified three distinct clusters of published material:
  1. research published in the 38 journals of the Thomson-Reuters urban studies cluster;  
  2. research with urban content in the social sciences and humanities;
  3. research with urban content published in the applied sciences.

We focused on the SciVerse-Scopus database of journal articles published in 2010, which contains 991,000 entries. We then identified the research papers containing the keyword ‘urban’ plus one of the following keywords—planning, renewal, development, politics, population, transport, housing—that have shown up in a pilot project. We limited the search to Social Science subject areas and to relevant subject areas in the applied Sciences (ignoring medicine, engineering and so forth). This yielded the following numbers of articles and reviews:

Number of Reviews and Articles

Urban Studies cluster

Social Sciences


Source: Scopus, February 2012

Table 1: Data on urban publications in the three different clusters

Water 254
Urban Planning 156
Housing 286
Environment 144
US 129
US 244
Urban Area 143
Urban Area 127
Urban Planning 240
Air 93
Urban  Population 126
Urban Development 221
Land Use 73
Human 109
Policy 215
Atmosphere 71
Urban  Development 106
Urban Area 176
Human 69
History 91
Neighborhood 148
US 68
Female 78
Urban Population 119
China 63
Housing 69
Urban Economy 90
Urban Planning 61
China 64
Metropolitan Area 88
Pollution 60
Urban Policy 64
Governance 74
Urbanization 54
Male 61
UK 74
Urban Population 51
Neighborhood 61
China 68
Urban Development 47
Urbanization 59
Social Change 62
Sustainability 40
Land Use 58
Urban Renewal 60
Climate 38
Rural 58
Urban Society 58
GIS 34
Policy 56
Urban Politics 54
Transport 34
Planning 54
Education  48
Female 32
Adult 51
Urbanization 48
Agriculture 29
Metropolitan Area 45
Strategic Approach 48

Table 2: appearances of keywords in the three clusters: those in RED are unique, those in BLUE are common to all three columns, and those shaded are discussed in the text below. Index keywords been attributed by indexers such as Medline and Embase. Redundancies were eliminated and minor categories collapsed: e.g. water use and water planning are aggregated to ‘water’.  The three data sets were rearranged according to the keyword frequency, scaled against the grand totals for each column, to make them comparable. 

How we interpret these results

From such a preliminary analysis, we can still make a number of inferences. First, we can see that there is relatively little overlap between the three columns, with 22 of the 60 entries being unique (half of the Science entries, 9 in the Urban cluster). The variation is systematic: in the Sciences, research focuses on water, air and climate, whereas in the other columns it emphasizes housing, governance and planning. Surprisingly, the points of potential convergence—such as ‘sustainability’—appear only in the Sciences column.    
            We begin to understand one part of the lack of integration between the three areas of specialty when we examine the origins of the research. Half of the urban studies research emanates from the Anglophone countries; in contrast, Chinese authors contribute most to the Sciences cluster.  

Figure 1: the percentage of papers within a category that have at least one author with an affiliation in the countries displayed: e.g. 33% of all Urban Studies papers have an author with an American affiliation. 

            A second issue of importance is that research undertaken both in the Social Sciences and Urban clusters is attentive to scale; we have marked the appearance of both ‘neighborhood’ and ‘metropolitan’ in these columns. In contrast, Science research considers broader categories, such as urban versus rural. This reflects the tendency for applied science to apply itself to broad processes such as climate change, and the much narrower concerns of social scientists with phenomena such as gated communities.

Why these results are of relevance

The data suggest that there may be only limited integration of research efforts undertaken by those who work explicitly in urban studies, social scientists who work in cities, and scientists who are concerned with the environmental impacts of urban development. Some part of this may be driven by geography and will disappear as more Chinese, Korean and Japanese scholars publish in international journals [2].  It remains the case however that there is an astonishingly small commitment to pressing environmental issues such as climate change, sustainability and adaptation outside the science cluster.
It is to address this problem that CRoC has been developed.  As a meta-journal, the aim is to publish solicited material that can assist in bridging these silos, while building on the points of integration that do exist within the different communities of urban scholarship.   

Kirby, A. (2012) “Current Research on Cities and its contribution to urban studies” Cities Volume 29, Supplement 1 S3–S8

(2) Haijun Wanga et al. (2012) “Global urbanization research from 1991 to 2009: A systematic research review’ Landscape and Urban Planning 104, 299– 309.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

CRoC appears for Valentine’s Day

Current Research on Cities has been on something of a hiatus in 2012 although there have been regular posts on the Facebook site. However, the real action has been in the assembly of the first issue of the journal, which was completed in December and is now available ‘in press’.

The first issue appears as a supplement to the parent journal Cities. Here is the new cover of the journal, which is a variation on the new Cities cover.

The listing of contents is as follows:

We are very excited by the quality of the papers, all of which can be accessed here on ScienceDirect.