Essay: Current Urban Ecology of American Cities

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¶ … Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy" by Bill Steigerwald (June 2001)

As more and more of the world's growing population pours into densely packed urban regions, city planners are faced with some enormous challenges in providing livable conditions and services for these unprecedented numbers. In an early response to these trends, Jane Jacobs called for a more enlightened approach to city planning that takes real people and their needs into account. Although she is not an architect and does not have any specialized training, Jacobs' 1961 book, the Death and Life of Great American Cities, had an enormous influence on traditional city planning processes in the years since its publication. This paper reviews Bill Steigerwald's interview with Jacobs, "Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy" to identify personal points of agreement as well as divisive issues. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

Review and Discussion

City planning in North America in general has been a hit-and-miss proposition over the years, and the learning curve has been extremely steep. In his interview with the venerable octogenarian, Steigerwald develops the points that Jacobs had been on the front lines of urban development in Canada during the last half of the 20th century and had the opportunity to witness firsthand the failed efforts of governmental planners to make cities better places to live. Just as Canada managed to avoid the same types of violent union and labor confrontation that rocked the United States during the 20th century, Canada also enjoyed the benefit of watching how the urban renewal initiatives undertaken by its neighbor to the south failed to achieve their goals and use these lessons learned for their own projects. The point is also made that city planning is not an exact science but is rather an art that must take into account the vast range of features that make a city livable by human standards. In response to a question concerning whether modern city planners had learned anything from the failed efforts in the past, Jacobs suggested that in the case of Pittsburg at least, they had not: "That attitude -- that you can sacrifice small things, young things, and a diversity of things for some great big success -- is sad."

The truly sad aspect of the urban renewal approaches that have been used in the United States in the past, Jacobs asserts, is not so much the failures of city planners to achieve their goals but rather the types of misguided goals they actually used. For instance, with respect to the government's power of eminent domain to condemn property that is deemed in the general public's best interests, Jacobs maintains that this power has been subverted and is routinely used to unjustly enrich private enterprises that are in bed with the public sector. For instance, according to Jacobs:

[These] government powers were intended for things like schools and roads and public things, and are used instead for the benefit of private organizations and individuals. That's one of the worst things about urban renewal. It introduced that idea that you could use those government powers to benefit private organizations.

In support of this assertion, Jacobs cites some isolated examples from the mid-20th century concerning how big government in the U.S. wielded a big stick to force its will on the little guys that did not have a voice in the proceedings and were apparently denied all due process. Moreover, Jacobs asserts that the same types of unfair practices were used in the past by developers to take what they wanted… [END OF PREVIEW]

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