Jane Jacobs, Reassessed

She wrote one of the magisterial books on urbanity, but, as this article from New Geography explains, it may no longer matter much.

An excerpt.

“As a professor who teaches about cities and the urban form, I very much appreciate the sidewalk ballets and street-corner societies that have historically existed in our nation’s urban centers. These features of the built-environment have long been powerful factors in the formation of both social capital, community, and a place’s identity. But it is a mistake to overstate the power of sidewalks and other features of urbanity in the creation of diverse ties as Eboo Patel approvingly does in Inside Higher Education when he cites Jane Jacob’s idea that “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

“Urbanists, social theorists, and policy have all been looking for ways to improve our nation’s civic health and state of social capital, but writers such as Patel need to be careful when talking about Jacob’s ideas because many of her observations were shortsighted and narrow, many of her conclusions about the dynamics of city life were simply incorrect, and her work was written in a different socio-economic era where settlement patterns, economic conditions, and communal institutions were appreciably different from today.

“Data from AEI’s Survey on Community and Society (SCS) furthers the line of questioning about Jacob’s conclusions because the data reveals that those who live in cities – places with sidewalks and often have more instances of “architecture of engagement” compared to suburban and rural areas – are not appreciably closer to their communities and neighbors when compared to those inhabiting social networks in the suburbs. These have long been criticized by such scholars as Kenneth Jackson and Robert Putnam, as well as Jacobs, as places of isolation.

“For instance, the SCS survey asks about how much do the people in your neighborhood or in the immediate area where you live give you a sense of community and the differences in urban form are minor. In large cities and their suburbs, just 20% of respondents believe that the people nearby give them a strong sense of community. In small cities or towns, the figure increases a few points to 23% and climbs to 26% in rural areas. As for talking with one’s neighbors, a prerequisite for real relationships to develop, there are no appreciable differences by urban form with roughly 50% of those in rural, suburban, and urban areas all claiming that they talk with the neighbors a few times a week or more and three-quarters says a few times a month or more regularly.

“Going further, when asked about cooperating for a communal good – like conservation of electricity or water – 70% of city residents thought that it was likely or very likely that people within the community would cooperate. However, 75% of those in the suburbs and small cities thought the same. In rural areas, the number was comparable at 74%.

“Relatedly, 47% or urban dwellers and 49% of suburbanites very much or pretty much share the same values and that figure climbs to 59% for those in rural areas – which often lack the sidewalk infrastructure of community but claim to share more values. So, it is clear that urban areas are not on the vanguard of community relationships and cohesion despite the far greater likelihood of sidewalk interactions and Jacob’s idea that cities have “built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together.”

“While sentiments about one’s community shed light on Jacob’s ideas about the import of physical structures promoting tolerance and appreciation for difference, it is valuable to examine network diversity as well. The SCS has a battery of items which ask about social network composition on a number of dimensions. The data, like before, demonstrate that those living in dense cities generally do not enjoy more diverse networks compared to their suburban counterparts.

“More specifically, the survey asks, “Of the people you interact with most regularly in your community, how many of them do you believe have different political views/religious views/are of a different race or ethnicity from yours/have a different educational level from you?”

“It turns out that it’s, if anything, the core city dwellers who inhabit a “bubble” lacking in diversity. When looking at political views, 51% of those in urban areas maintain that half or more of those in their community hold different political views from their own. Rural areas come in at 50% while the figure jumps to 57% for suburbs and 58% for small towns and cities. As for education, 63% of urbanites state that about half or more of those that they regularly interact with in their community have a different level of education than they do. The figure increases for every other spatial arrangement where 66% of those in rural areas have more diverse networks based on educational attainment. The figures are even larger at 69% for small towns and cities and even higher at 73% for the suburbs. This makes it quite clear that cities, despite their built environments, are not creating more diverse communities and networks as far as politics and educational levels are concerned.”

Retrieved February 4, 2020 from http://www.newgeography.com/content/006547-be-careful-when-citing-jane-jacobs-her-conclusions-don-t-always-hold

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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