10 June 2020

Beware the ‘utopians’ who would use Covid to ruin our cities


On my short list of coronavirus silver linings is finally getting round to reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs’ classic 1961 account of why some cities and neighbourhoods thrive and others don’t.

The book’s provocative thesis was recognised as important from the moment it was published and it quickly became the definitive response to top-down planners like Robert Moses and the architects whose grand designs did so much damage to cities after the Second World War. Reading this manifesto for cheek-by-jowl city living 59 years later, with social distancing rules in place and under strict instructions to shelter in place, felt positively transgressive. And, with many asking how whether the virus will change cities, the book is as relevant as ever.

Everything about this lockdown would have been anathema to Jacobs, who died in 2006. For her, density was central to what made a city successful. Busy streets were not a nuisance, but a sign of life. She famously described the organic order of a healthy city neighbourhood as an “intricate ballet in which individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole”. This “sidewalk ballet” never stops, and it is this “constant succession of eyes” that “maintains the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city”.

Suddenly, all of this human interaction wasn’t a sign of vitality; it was a lethal threat. The only sidewalk ballet going on in Washington DC, where I live, has been the series of lurches leftwards and rightwards to maintain the required six feet from one another: jumping into the road and pressing ourselves against walls as we navigate our way to the shops and back.

Once the lockdowns are over and the worst of the pandemic is behind us, there is a risk that we revert to the way of thinking about cities that Jacobs fought against: as dangerous problems to be solved or sandpits for utopians, not organic agglomerations that should be allowed to thrive.

In Jacobs’ telling, the original villain was Ebenezer Howard, the founder of the garden city movement, who, according to Jacobs, “hated the city and thought it was an outright evil and an affront to nature… His prescription for saving the people was to do the city in”. He created “very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own”. Books like Lewis Mumford’s The Culture of Cities — “a morbid and biased catalogue of ills” —  painted the great city as “Megalopolis, Tyrannopolis, Nekropolis, a monstrosity, a tyranny, a living death”. Also in her rogues gallery was Le Corbusier, the architect whose ideal city consisted of skyscrapers within a park. His aesthetic and political preferences were to be forced onto those who happened to live where he hoped to bring his dreams to life.

The ideas of utopians like Le Corbusier and “decentrists” like Howard were “two powerful visions” that, as Jacobs lamented, served as fixed points of reference for generations of “zoners, highway planners, legislators, land-use planners, and parks and playground planners”.

It isn’t hard to imagine something similar happening in the wake of the coronavirus: a new wave of utopians keen to use this cataclysm as a chance to rip it up while a fresh generation of dencentrists cheer on a flight from density, and all the pestilence that comes with it. 

And so those who share Jacobs’ vision of a healthy, functioning city as an organic, dense and bottom-up creature find themselves on the back foot.

If social distancing means no concerts, theatres, bar or clubs then density will be a lot duller in the medium term. In the longer term, cars have fresh appeal, as do more spacious suburban homes. Public transport seems even less agreeable than it was before Covid-19. The pandemic has put the trend towards online retail into warp speed, threatening the shops that are so essential to Jacobs’ sidewalk ballet.

But there could also be some unintended and not entirely unwelcome consequences to these trends. For years, major global cities have got steadily more expensive and less interesting, offering up an ever more generic menu of amusements for the superrich. But if cities suddenly look less appealing, they become more affordable, and that, in the long-run, could make them more interesting, healthy and functional places.

Moreover, with transit and high-rise office blocks now hygiene headaches, the kind of city living Jacobs argued for — low-rise density with work, play and rest all happening on the same block — has a fresh appeal.

In the short-term, we are seeing Jacobs-approved ways of coping with social distancing. Cities from Oakland to Vilnius have thrown regulatory caution to the wind and allowed restaurants and bars to spill onto the streets. Other measures that allow a city’s inhabitants to decide for themselves what works on their city’s streets would be in keeping with the Jacobs approach to solving the problems posed by the pandemic. 

At the very end of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs addresses contagious diseases directly. Hearteningly, she says, it is as an example of the way in which cities can “have marvellous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties”:

Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors. All the apparatus of surgery, hygiene, microbiology, chemistry, telecommunications, public health measures, teaching and research hospitals, ambulances and the like, which people not only in cities but also outside them depend upon for the unending war against premature mortality, are fundamentally products of big cities and would be inconceivable without big cities….Does anyone suppose that, in real life, answers to any of the great questions that worry us today are going to come out of homogenous settlements? 

Dull, inert cities, it is true do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.

That was true in 1961, and it remains true today. 

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Oliver Wiseman is US Editor of The Critic.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.