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Downtowns are for People by Urbanist Jane Jacobs

If the downtown of tomorrow looks like most of the redevelopment projects being planned for it today, it will end up a monumental bore. But downtown could be made lively and exciting -- and it's not too hard to find out how. By Jane Jacobs. Fifty years ago.

Published April 9, 2012 in Urban Issues      9 Comments    Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article


Jane Jacobs, 1958

This year is going to be a critical one for the future of the city. All over the country civic leaders and planners are preparing a series of redevelopment projects that will set the character of the center of our cities for generations to come. Great tracts, many blocks wide, are being razed; only a few cities have their new downtown projects already under construction; but almost every big city is getting ready to build, and the plans will soon be set.

What will the projects look like? They will be spacious, parklike, and uncrowded. They will feature long green vistas. They will be stable and symmetrical and orderly. They will be clean, impressive, and monumental. They will have all the attributes of a well-kept, dignified cemetery. And each project will look very much like the next one: the Golden Gateway office and apartment center planned for San Francisco; the Civic Center for New Orleans; the Lower Hill auditorium and apartment project for Pittsburgh; the Convention Center for Cleveland; the Quality Hill offices and apartments for Kansas City; the downtown scheme for Little Rock; the Capitol Hill project for Nashville. From city to city the architects' sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own.

These projects will not revitalize downtown; they will deaden it. For they work at cross-purposes to the city. They banish the street. They banish its function. They banish its variety. There is one notable exception, the Gruen plan for Fort Worth; ironically, the main point of it has been missed by the many cities that plan to imitate it. Almost without exception the projects have one standard solution for every need: commerce, medicine, culture, government—whatever the activity, they take a part of the city's life, abstract it from the hustle and bustle of downtown, and set it, like a self-sufficient island, in majestic isolation.

There are, certainly, ample reasons for redoing downtown--falling retail sales, tax bases in jeopardy, stagnant real-estate values, impossible traffic and parking conditions, failing mass transit, encirclement by slums. But with no intent to minimize these serious matters, it is more to the point to consider what makes a city center magnetic, what can inject the gaiety, the wonder, the cheerful hurly-burly that make people want to come into the city and to linger there. For magnetism is the crux of the problem. All downtown's values are its byproducts. To create in it an atmosphere of urbanity and exuberance is not a frivolous aim.

We are becoming too solemn about downtown. The architects, planners—and businessmen--are seized with dreams of order, and they have become fascinated with scale models and bird's-eye views. This is a vicarious way to deal with reality, and it is, unhappily, symptomatic of a design philosophy now dominant: buildings come first, for the goal is to remake the city to fit an abstract concept of what, logically, it should be. But whose logic? The logic of the projects is the logic egocentric children, playing with pretty blocks and shouting "See what I made!"--a viewpoint much cultivated in our schools of architecture and design. And citizens who should know better are so fascinated by the sheer process of rebuilding that the end results are secondary to them.

With such an approach, the end results will be about as helpful to the city as the dated relics of the City Beautiful movement, which in the early years of this century was going to rejuvenate the city by making it parklike, spacious, and monumental. For the underlying intricacy, and the life that makes downtown worth fixing at all, can never be fostered synthetically. No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at the boulevards of Paris, as the City Beautiful people did; and they can't find it by looking at suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities.

You've got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong. You will see, for example; that a worthy and well-kept institutional center does not necessarily upgrade its surroundings. (Look at the blight-engulfed urban universities, or the petered-out environs of such ambitious landmarks as the civic auditorium in St. Louis and the downtown mall in Cleveland.) You will see that suburban amenity is not what people seek downtown. (Look at Pittsburghers by the thousands climbing forty-two steps to enter the very urban Mellon Square, but balking at crossing the street into the ersatz suburb of Gateway Center.)

You will see that it is not the nature of downtown to decentralize. Notice how astonishingly small a place it is; how abruptly it gives way, outside the small, high-powered core, to underused area. Its tendency is not to fly apart but to become denser, more compact. Nor is this tendency some leftover from the past; the number of people working within the cores has been on the increase, and given the long-term growth in white-collar work it will continue so. The tendency to become denser is a fundamental quality of downtown and it persists for good and sensible reasons.

If you get out and walk, you see all sorts of other clues. Why is the hub of downtown such a mixture of things? Why do office workers on New York's handsome Park Avenue turn off to Lexington or Madison Avenue at the first corner they reach? Why is a good steak house usually in an old building? Why are short blocks apt to be busier than long ones?

It is the premise of this article that the best way to plan for downtown is to see how people use it today; to look for its strengths and to exploit and reinforce them. There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.

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April 09, 2012, 06:10:45 AM
Great read. Waterfronts and a focus.


April 09, 2012, 10:11:12 AM
And time has proven Jane right of course.  You would think that her brilliant urban formulations would at least be familiar to our local "redevelopers".

In her opening paragraphs, she mentions the plans of the golden gate offices and apartment project--- a huge undertaking in SF at the time.

This was part of a larger effort to redevelop the city's wester addition.

Here is a recent synopsis of the aftermath of that effort:

Urban renewal effected a complete upheaval of the community in the Western Addition. While the exact number of displaced residents is unknown—the Redevelopment Agency’s reported figures have been inconsistent, and they likely did not capture data for many individuals and families—the final combined tally for the two project areas is between 20,000 and 30,000 residents. (Lichfield 1961; Mollenkopf 1983; Hartman 1984; Neighborhoods 1999) In 1980, the district had five thousand fewer housing units than had existed thirty years earlier (about a 30 percent decrease); the approximately two thousand affordable units that had been constructed were sufficient to house less than one quarter of the displaced population. (Mollenkopf 1983) Not until 2000 did the total number of units rebound to levels approaching those of 1950. (US Census Bureau, 2000 Census of Population and Households)

After the Redevelopment Agency acquired and cleared properties, the pace of redevelopment was disastrously slow, and the vision of a revitalized community never materialized. Banks were reluctant to provide financing for developments in an otherwise disinvested, leveled neighborhood. The central plot on Fillmore Street—formerly home to the neighborhood’s busy commercial center—remained undeveloped until the late 1980s; today, about half of the storefronts in the Fillmore Center are empty. Some properties laid fallow for decades, which, for former residents, added insult to the injury of displacement. Development of the final parcel was completed just last year


April 09, 2012, 11:36:12 AM
Did anyone read Littlepage's rant on Sunday? He wants us to look to Portland and how they use their downtown park connected to government buildings as a model for Jacksonville. Did you know that the city kicks in 1.2 million per year to help prop up the park? And the oversight is done by an outside vendor.

Why is it that everyone wants to fix a small little park that is 5 blocks from the river, when there are major issues with the Riverwalk? Southbank Riverwalk is a disgrace, rotting boards, the Navy monument is falling apart, and so we fix the fountain, but failed to fix the areas that bring people to the fountain. Met Park is right on the water, with a need for that 1.2 million to help improve the facilities and allow us to have more events downtown, along the river.

Yet, we want to fix a park that is 5 blocks from the river and people don't want to drive downtown and look at a park surrounded by buildings, when they would rather enjoy the real gem of the city, the river. Is Mayor Brown really this disjointed from the reality that the River should be more of a focus? I already know Littlepage checked out of reality many years ago, and the Times Union, which sits on the river, would rather push the development of Hemming Plaza as well. Why? What is the draw of a 1 block park surrounded by buildings, when the River is the real draw in Jacksonville? The idiocy of it all is maddening!


April 09, 2012, 11:42:39 AM
And of course, Jane specifically mentioned the Lower Hill Auditorium Project in her essay.  How did that turn out?

In the 1950s and early 1960s, despite vehement protest from community residents, the city implemented plans to demolish the Lower Hill and replace existing homes and businesses with a cultural venue for more affluent Pittsburghers.  The transformation centered upon a new “Civic Auditorium” which was to be anchored by the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.  Thousands of buildings were demolished and over 8,000 residents were forced to relocate, most receiving little to no compensation for their homes.  The grand vision for the Lower Hill Cultural Center did not pan out, however, as plans to build several other theater and arts complexes near the Civic Arena were abandoned in favor of large surface parking lots for commuters and event attendees.  Subsequent urban renewal plans to remake the rest of the Hill were thwarted when residents who had seen too much of their neighborhood meet the wrecking ball stood firmly at Crawford Street and would not allow redevelopment to proceed beyond that point.  Today, that spot is marked by a monument called “Freedom Corner”.
The Hill District has never fully recovered from the devastation wrought by mortgage redlining, out-migration, disinvestment and urban renewal, and it is now one of the lowest income, most physically deteriorated neighborhoods in the City.  At the same time, the Hill District’s excellent location adjacent to strong housing and job markets in Downtown and Oakland gives it a great deal of development potential.  


April 09, 2012, 11:54:09 AM
Man, even the Quality Hill Redevelopment project was even more horrible than she anticipated.

Jane wrote this essay in 1958, and check out what had happened to the neighborhood by 1980:

In the mid-1980s, downtown's northwest corner had fallen a long way from its grandeur of more than a century earlier, when it earned the name Quality Hill. The city's first mayor lived there amid blocks lined with Victorian mansions. But the area slowly eroded into an urban slum characterized by flophouses and fire-ravaged buildings. In 1984 the city extended a wealth of incentives to St. Louis developer McCormack Baron Salazar to rehab the decaying neighborhood.

Paving the way for a new residential development, the city contributed $3.2 million in infrastructure improvements and $7.5 million in community development funds, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city also issued $11 million in revenue bonds, pushed for a $6.5 million federal grant from HUD and chipped in a 25-year property tax abatement.


April 09, 2012, 01:12:28 PM
Southbank Riverwalk is a disgrace, rotting boards, the Navy monument is falling apart, and so we fix the fountain, but failed to fix the areas that bring people to the fountain.

Considering the Southbank Riverwalk is getting a complete rebuild...


April 09, 2012, 01:42:51 PM
In the second half of the 20th century there emerged an informal debate concerning policy for the downtowns of cities. The French-Swiss architect Charles Édouard Jeanneret, popularly known by his assumed pseudonym of le Corbusier, established a school of urban design whose influence spread throughout the world, culminating in the design of an entire city in India, Chandigarh. When le Corbusier's influence began to be felt in city planning in American cities, Jane Jacobs, an associate editor of Architectural Forum magazine, began to criticize the planning school in books and articles.

As an illustration of the issues consider the housing project built in St. Louis in the 1950's named Pruitt-Igoe. It was a large project involving 2870 apartments in 33 building each 11 floors tall. It occupied a 57 acre building site. From the air it was quite impressive.

The designer for Pruitt-Igoe was the noted Japanese architect Minoru Yamasaki. Pruitt-Igoe was one of his earlier works, the World Trade Center in New York was one of his later designs.

The design of Pruitt-Igoe was constrained by limitations imposed by the Federal Public Housing Authority (PHA). This Authority provided a substantial share of the financing of the project. The state of Missouri provided most of the remainder of the financing. St. Louis city organizations were given authority to clear the slum area and supervise the construction. The design plan for Pruitt-Igoe was praised by the magazine Architecture Forum.

There were notable short-comings of the design such as no playgrounds. Playgrounds were added only when residents petitioned for their construction. The elevators stopped only for floors 1, 4, 7 and 10. The residents for the other floors had to use the stairs from the most convenient one of those specific floors. This was a cost savings measure.

The initial construction cost was $36 million, about 60 percent higher per unit than the Federal standard. The pipefitters' union used political influence to get an excessively expensive heating system imposed upon the project. The excess heating system costs resulted in insufficient funds for other aspects of the project. The Korean War caused shortages of building materials and the quality of the construction was judged to be poor.

The first units were completed in 1953 and families began moving in. The last units were completed in 1954. The public housing in St. Louis was planned on a racially segregated basis. A Missouri State court decision in 1956 prohibited the racial segregation of public housing. However Pruitt-Igoe did not become integrated. It remained predominantly African American. However the apartment units were not filled. The occupancy rate did not rise above 60 percent. The public corridors became dangerous places. Muggings and gang violence became a fact of life in Pruitt-Igoe.

By the late 1960's there were only about six hundred living in 17 of the buildings. The other 16 were boarded up. Vandalism was rampant. Windows were broken out. By 1968 the Department of Housing of the Federal Government was recommending to residents that they leave and find other housing. A story is told, perhaps apocryphal, that the housing authority convened a public meeting of the residents to find ways to solve the problems of Pruitt-Igoe. After listening to various proposals the meeting leaders asked the audience what they thought should be done with Pruitt-Igoe. Somewhere someone said, "Blow it up!" Other took up and the cry and soon the whole audience was chanting "Blow it up, blow it up!" The housing authority then decided to do just that.

The first building demolition came in March of 1972, a second about a month later and more in July of 1972. However it took three years to complete the demolition and the site was not cleared until 1976. The site is now occupied by elementary schools.

People recognized that Pruitt-Igoe was a disasterous failure but they found it difficult to articulate why projects that looked so good in design could be such failures. It took a woman named Jane Jacobs to articulate the reasons for the failures. She was not writing about Pruitt-Igoe specifically but instead the general problems of cities and what was called urban renewal at the time.

In the mid-1950's Jane Jacobs presented a paper at a conference which an editor of Fortune magazine attended. The editor invited her to write a article for Fortune. She did so and the article, "Downtown Is for People," was published in the April, 1958 issue of Fortune. She went on to write her great masterpiece, The Decline and Rise of Great American Cities, which was widely read and changed the public's perceptions of the issues in city planning, particularly the renovation of downtowns. She then wrote The Economy of Cities in which she argued that the city form of habitation was intrinsically involved in the emergence of civilization.

An introduction to Jacob's thinking is available in her 1958 article Downtown Is for People


April 09, 2012, 01:45:34 PM
I can see how in the 1960's people didn't really know the full impact of their redevelopment strategies on downtown, but now we have all the evidence and yet it's still a struggle to get Jacksonville off the same exact path. It's like a weird 1960's time warp.

Debbie Thompson

April 10, 2012, 07:07:28 AM
Yeah, the 1960's is about right.  That's just about the decade people tend to be stuck in here in Jacksonville.  It's not really a time warp, Lunican.  It's that we never moved on from there and learned from the 1970's till now.  We are still doing "urban renewal" like the 1960's even though it's been proven to be a disaster since then.
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