The Sacking of Cities

One of the central tenants of Jane Jacobs‘ philosophy was that successful city life is based on spontaneity, diversity, and dynamism. This put her at odds with many city planners of the day, who believed that we could create desirable places to live by tearing down existing buildings down and building up from scratch.

As a result, many planned developments, were based on theoretical principles and idealized abstracts -“anything but cities themselves,” instead of looking to the existing subtleties of the communities in question and the inherent knowledge possessed by the residents of the neighborhood (which she called “locality knowledge”).  More often than not, these formally planned areas ended up being dull, lifeless neighborhoods that perpetuated many of the problems that planner had sought out to avoid. This phenomenon is outlined in in Jacobs’ landmark treatise landmark first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961):

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 out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yester-day’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: 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 of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.


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