Friday, July 22, 2011

Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte on the City

Before I discuss books in this post, a backstory is necessary to explain how my interest was spurred in this subject.  About four years ago I moved from the downtown core of a moderately sized city with a population of just over one million residents into a new suburban development.  This was prompted by the impending birth of my son, who we thought would have a better start to life away from the hustle and bustle of downtown.  However, the experience turned out to be much different than I expected.  The first sign that something was amiss came the day after we moved in when we decided to take a long walk and explore our neighbourhood.  This took place on a beautiful sunny day on Labour Day weekend.  During this hour long walk I was immediately shocked that we encountered no other people.  Another example is that during my family's walks we often go down a bike/walking path close to our home.  Whenever we make it half way between two intersecting roads I always take a moment to look behind me and what I invariably find is that we are alone on this path.  Ongoing exposure to the suburbs has prompted a burgeoning interest in city planning, social space and what makes cities successful.

From this interest I began to seek out essays and books that delved into the subject.  The undisputed classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs and, read prior to that, The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces by William H. Whyte stand out.  In both books the methodology is similar: they look at successful areas, determine what features they have in common, and then look at unsuccessful areas and try to determine what is missing.  Whyte starts with a basic question that asks why two areas with equal number of passersby of a public space, predominantly downtown plazas in his study, have radically unequal numbers of people who stop to use the space.  Jacobs looks at larger scale neighbourhoods that have successful businesses, stable residents, low crime and act as a population draw for people outside the area to come to her conclusions.  The empirical approach of direct observation rather than a study of pre-existing statistics is stressed in both cases.

Whyte focuses on a very specific element of the city: downtown plazas.  However, this provides him the ability to look into each element of the spaces with great depth.  He minutely examines the nature of the adjoining street, the capacity of the area, the availability of food vendors nearby, the effects of the elements, and the availability of sitting space.  An example of his detailed approach can be found in the measurements of available sitting space, right down to the inch, in areas of high use and low use and concluding how much sitting space per person seems to be ideal based on the most frequently used areas.  His overall conclusions are that many of these plazas aren't built to provide a true social space but that the property developers create them to satisfy zoning requirements and receive credit on their building opportunities.  One of his solutions is to take a closer look at what the zoning requirements dictate and to implement the elements of successful spaces into them.

Jacobs looks at the city in a broader perspective, though she takes pains, most evident in the early part of the book, to indicate that she is looking at large cities, not towns, and not suburban areas.  The conclusion that she comes to is that successful areas are diverse areas, and from there she outlines four basic generators of diversity: areas must serve as more than one primary function; most blocks must be short, the area must be composed of both new and old buildings, and there must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people.  She stresses that successful areas must fulfill all of these factors and not just one or two.  The lengthy middle portion of her book is to explore each of these factors in depth.  The end result is that the way I view my city, and cities in general, has been dramatically changed.

The downtown region of my city shows both success and failure in this regard.  While the area surrounding my former residence was of mixed use and relatively vibrant, within walking distance was the so-called business district where a stroll at 7pm on a Saturday revealed the complete absence of other people and resembled a ghost town.  Only developing an interest in this subject a few years ago I am not versed in any criticisms that Jacobs, or Whyte for that matter, may have been subjected to.  I am, however, quite certain that despite being given the moniker of "classic works" on the subject the ideas have not being implemented, as my above example shows, which is only one of many examples that I could have brought forward.

As I mentioned in the opening of this post, my spurring moment into this subject was my suburban experience.  Jacobs specifically states that her book does not examine this and that her four generators of diversity don't apply to it.  This is not to say she found suburban areas acceptable, but that it presents a unique problem outside of her scope.  I have yet to find the great study of the suburbs and believe it may not have been written yet.  Retrofitting Suburbia by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson presented what I first though was an acceptable approach to suburban development but my enthusiasm has diminished with time.  I now feel that their approach, creating mixed use spaces in failing areas of the suburbs such as redesigning abandoned big-boxed stores into multifaceted buildings, is more applicable to grey areas of cities, such as those found between the downtown core and the newer suburban developments.

If I can venture into speculation, I feel that there is something inherently wrong with the suburbs, and not just from the design perspective of sprawl, but from the perspective of basic human needs.  It is often characterized, rightly so, as a problem area but defined in terms of sprawl eating away at green space, a contributor to automobile congestion, and a rain on city resources because of increased geographical distance.  While these are legitimate I feel the most important issue is that suburban living is a social problem.  I firmly believe that humans are social beings and this goes deeper than merely wanting to spend time with acquaintances.  People want to spend time with people in general, whether they are strangers or not.  How else to explain the magnetism of crowds, the desire to go "people-watching" as I have heard friends say, and, as Whyte and Jacobs continually reiterate in their books, that there is empirical evidence that life and activity foster more life and activity.  My suburban experience is characterized by this growing awareness of the absence of this vitality and a growing concern with what this absence does to individual social development, hence my concern with raising my son in such a monotonous environment.

One evening a few weeks ago I struck up a brief conversation with a stranger in a supermarket.  It was spurred by the large group of teenagers who has collected at the far end of the parking lot to socialize.  There were approximately 30 vehicles parked and a far greater number of people.  I have observed this happening a few times per week for several months.  The gentleman I spoke with said he was originally from a small town and frequently saw this happen there.  He said that it was because the "kids in my town had nothing to do," but could not understand why it was happening here.  He failed to realize that, despite the greater population, proximity to a large downtown core, and supposedly greater opportunities these provide maybe our youth are finding that there is still simply nothing to do and that this activity is the result of an unfulfilled need.  These forced transformations of barren space into public space are as clear an indication of a specifically suburban social problem as I can imagine.

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