26 January 2010

I hold a certain measure of interest in the way a city operates and could likely offer my two cents about how I imagine it could be enhanced (systems junkie that I am). But since I don't have any formal training in urban planning, I wouldn't want to presume that my thoughts are the best for everyone. Ironically, Jane Jacobs didn't have any training either. But her contribution to the way we now view the public sphere is significant, so I turn to her as part of my research for Dinner With A Side Of Design. What I appreciate about her approach is that she doesn't focus on the utopia at the end of the rainbow but rather pursues an honest embrace of what the city already is and designs within it:

Cities as Ecosystems
Jacobs approached cities as living beings and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighborhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city - sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy – functions together synergistically, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. This understanding helps us discern how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.

Mixed-Use Development
Jacobs advocated for "mixed-use" urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being "organic, spontaneous, and untidy," and views the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.

Bottom-Up Community Planning
Jacobs contested the traditional planning approach that relies on the judgment of outside experts, proposing that local expertise is better suited to guiding community development. She based her writing on empirical experience and observation, noting how the prescribed government policies for planning and development are usually inconsistent with the real-life functioning of city neighborhoods.

The Case for Higher Density
Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.

content: Project For Public Spaces
image: Ken Fallin

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