Saturday, May 21, 2011

Jane Jacobs and Alleys

The Death and Life of Great American Cities,  Jane Jacobs, Vintage Books Edition 1992
© 1961 by Jane Jacobs

A question arose several months ago at a community function during a discussion about Jane Jacob’s philosophy of urban development in the context of alleys. After it was generally agreed that Jacob’s philosophy was laid over a template of ecology, the question posed was, “how do market forces create change in the context of architectural historic preservation?” After a little reflection, my own answer was that the best change was never “complete and immediate” but incremental. Just don’t tear down what currently exists and wait for time to catch up with opportunity. Jacobs addresses this question elegantly in two rather complex chapters in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities -  Gradual money and cataclysmic money and Unslumming and slumming. Times and driving economic forces have changed since these chapters were written in the late 50’s but the principles remain rock solid. (see Reconsidering Jane Jacobs)

It takes so much more imagination to reconfigure and adaptively reuse old buildings than to tear them down and start with nothing. Scorched earth may create a nice blank slate for architects and urban planners to provide an easy short-term solution but it’s one that is sure to come back to haunt everyone in the long-term. Sometimes urban planning approaches look like burning down an old established forest with thousands of different flora and fauna inhabitants and then boastfully converting it into an instant Christmas tree farm. Fast but badly flawed. New but nasty.

Jane Jacobs didn’t write very much about alleys and the many roles they play in cities. Yet her basic philosophy about how best to “unslum” large cities could as easily apply to alleys as it did to the NY slums about which she wrote extensively. Have a look at the following two excerpts from her book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.

“In New York’s East Harlem there is a housing project with a conspicuous rectangular lawn which became an object of hatred to the project tenants. A social worker frequently at the project was astonished by how often the subject of the lawn came up, usually gratuitously as far as she could see, and how much the tenants despised it and urged that it be done away with. When she asked why, the answer as, “What good is it?” or “Who wants it?” Finally one day a tenant more articulate than the others made this pronouncement: “Nobody cared what we wanted when they built this place. They threw our houses down and pushed us here and pushed our friends somewhere else. We don’t have a place around here to get a cup of coffee or a newspaper even, or borrow fifty cents. Nobody cared what we need. But the big men come and look at that grass and say, ‘Isn’t it wonderful! Now the poor have everything!’”   (from the Introduction)

“The apathy is abetted, also, by the comfortable thought that the problem of slums is being overcome by wiping out old slum buildings. Nothing could be less true.
            It is so easy to blame the decay of cities on traffic … or immigrants … or the whimsies of the middle class. The decay of cities goes much deeper and is more complicated. It goes right down to what we think we want and to our ignorance of how cities work. The forms in which money is used must be converted to instruments of regeneration – from instruments buying violent cataclysms to instruments buying continual, gradual, complex and gentler change.”
(from Chapter 17 Gradual money and cataclysmic Money)

City Hall in Washington DC, be starting to change their concept of alleys from places for trash and services to paths for people. In a recently revealed budget proposal, Tommy Wells announced that among other things, he would like to - “Fund green alleys. Many alleys have crumbling surfaces and greatly need repair, but there hasn't been much money for this in recent years. $1 million would fund a new Green Alleys program, picking some alleys to rebuild with permeable paving, energy-efficient LED lighting, trees, and more.” This is a welcome proposal indeed! Bricking the DC alleys was a great program of “unslumming” while it lasted. The time is now ripe for adding more “human touches” to draw more foot traffic, vibrant human interactions and the kind of  “gentler change” to which Jane Jacobs was referring so many years ago.