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.


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