Joel Kotkin on Jane Jacobs

Our favorite urbanist/suburbanist examines the legacy of Jane Jacobs and finds it—though very insightful in some ways—largely very wrong, especially in her dismissal of the role suburbs play in family life.

An excerpt.

Arguably Jacobs’s biggest miscalculation related to urban demographics. As H.G. Wells predicted well over a century ago, cities now depend in large part on affluent, childless people, living what Wells labeled a life of “luxurious extinction.” Jacobs’s contemporary, the great sociologist Herbert Gans, already identified a vast chasm between suburbanites and those who favor urban core living who he identified as “the rich, the poor, the non-white as well as the unmarried and childless middle class.”

Jacobs never got this point, perhaps because she instinctively hated where families were in fact headed: the suburbs. Like many intellectuals in the ’50s and ’60s, she saw no need for suburbs, even as they experienced explosive growth, just dense city surrounded by traditional countryside.

Perhaps nothing of Jacobs seems more dated than her assertion that “suburbs must be a difficult place to raise children.” She lovingly portrayed neighborhoods like her own West Village as ideal places where locals watched out for each other. She wrote about how “Mr. Lacey, the locksmith, bawls out one of my sons for running into the street, and then later reports the transgression to my husband as he passes the locksmith shop. Mr. Lacey, with whom we have no ties other than street propinquity, feels responsible for him to a degree.”

At best, Jacobs’s compelling portrait from 1961 is something of an anachronism. Families in urban apartments today, notes Cornell researcher Gary Evans (PDF), generally have far weaker networks of neighbors than their suburban counterparts, a generally more stressful home life, and significantly less “social support.” Toronto author Phillip Preville notes, “In the years since, all the Mr. Laceys of the world have died and gone to downtown heaven,” he notes. “We can all talk Jane’s talk, but some people are pickled in Jane’s brine.”

Certainly statistics back up Preville’s assertion. Greenwich Village today now largely consists of students, wealthy people, and pensioners. Despite the presence of many young people, children and teens between 5 and 17 account for only 6 percent of the Village’s population, far below the norms for New York City (PDF), and less than half the 13.1 percent found across the United States’s 52 largest metropolitan areas. Overall, Manhattan has among the lowest percentage of children in the country; a majority of its households are made up of singles.

This pattern holds across the country. According to census data, in 2011 children 5-14 constitute about 7 percent in core districts across the country, roughly halfthe level seen in suburbs and exurbs. By 2011 people in their 20s constitute roughly one-quarter of the residents in urban cores, but only 14 percent or fewer of those who live in suburbs, where the bulk of people go as they start to reach the point of establishing families.

Even in Toronto, generally seen as one of the world’s most livable cities and Jacobs’s chosen home, Statistics Canada notes that for every person who moved from the hinterlands to the city, 3.5 moved towards the periphery. The people most likely to move out are 25 to 44, people entering the stage of family formation. As one Torontonian, who recently moved to the suburbs, observed: “The big city has its uses. It served me well, and I served it back. Living in Toronto enabled me to transform my life in ways I dearly wanted: marriage, fatherhood, career advancement. That transformation has brought with it needs that Toronto cannot adequately provide: personal space, affordability, an emphasis on community over privacy. The intensity and the anonymity of the city now hinder my life more than they help. Simple as that. I’m outta here.”…

Cities, as Jacobs hoped, have indeed experienced a renaissance, but not in the form she preferred. To be sure, this revival is a hell of lot better than the urban dystopia that developed in the years after Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities first appeared. But it’s time to recognize that we are not seeing a renaissance of the kind of middle-class urbanity that she loved and championed. That city has passed into myth, and, unless society changes in very radical ways, it is never going to come back.

Retrieved August 3, 2015 from

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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