May 4, 2006


What Jane Jacobs Really Saw: Today's urban planners falsely claim her legacy (LEONARD GILROY, May 2, 2006, Opinion Journal)

Given urban planners' almost universal reverence for Jacobs, it is ironic that many have largely ignored or misinterpreted the central lesson of "Death and Life"--that cities are vibrant living systems, not the product of grand, utopian schemes concocted by overzealous planners.

Modern planners have contorted Jacobs's beliefs in hopes of imposing their static, end-state vision of a city. They use a set of highly prescriptive policy tools--like urban growth boundaries, smart growth, and high-density development built around light-rail transit systems--to design the city they envision. They try to "create" livable cities from the ground up and micromanage urban form through regulation. We've seen these tools at work in Portland, Ore., for more than three decades. But the results have been dismal and dramatic. The city's "smart growth" policies effectively created a land shortage, constricting the housing supply and artificially inflating prices. By 1999, Portland had become one of the 10 least affordable housing markets in the nation, and its homeownership rate lagged behind the national average. It has also seen one of the nation's largest increases in traffic congestion and boasts a costly, heavily subsidized light-rail system that accounts for just 1% of the city's total travel. Not exactly how they planned it.

That's because these planning trends run completely counter to Jacobs's vision of cities as dynamic economic engines that thrive on private initiative, trial and error, incremental change, and human and economic diversity. Jacobs believed the most organic and healthy communities are diverse, messy and arise out of spontaneous order, not from a scheme that tries to dictate how people should live and how neighborhoods should look.

She felt it was foolish to focus on how cities look rather than how they function as economic laboratories. "The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop--insofar as public policy and action can do so--cities that are congenial places for [a] great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish," Jacobs wrote.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 4, 2006 1:08 PM

Even Richard Nixon has got soul.

Posted by: ghostcat at May 4, 2006 1:36 PM

"By 1999, Portland had become one of the 10 least affordable housing markets in the nation, and its homeownership rate lagged behind the national average."

With all due respect to the author, who must know more about these things than I do, Portland's location alone guarantees that both of these statistics will apply, regardless of how it's growth is planned (or not). And is the light-rail system really a systematic failure, or was it just poorly planned? Having observed the first 7 years of Seattle's "planning" of a light rail system, I can easily believe that Portland simply screwed it up.

Complete absence of planning is just as disastrous as poor planning.

Posted by: M. Bulger at May 4, 2006 3:16 PM

With respect Mr. Bulger, what are you talking about? What does location have to do with the statistics in question? Complete absence of planning is just as disastrous as poor planning? Huh?

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at May 4, 2006 3:26 PM

I thought it would be obvious: Portland is a West Coast city, and one of 2 major metropolises in the Pacific Northwest; gateway to the Pacific and the Rockies, etc. etc. Housing will be expensive no matter what, because lots and lots of people want to live there. The overspill from SF alone will inflate housing prices there.

And where housing prices inflate beyond the national average, home ownership will lag. This too is only common sense.

As for the effect of complete absence of planning, would you say a shantytown represents an effective use of city space? And do utilities just grow like roots to supply whatever growth occurs?

Posted by: M. Bulger at May 4, 2006 3:33 PM


How many examples of 'the complete absence of planning' and disasterous consequences do you have? Just about the entire urban planning movement of the late 50's through the 70's was an almost uniform disaster at an obscene cost. Repairing the results of the 'poor planning', as you say, has cost more than the planned prpjects themselves before one even begins to add up the costs of displaced people, small businesses and destroyed neighborhoods.

Posted by: Tom C.,Stamford,Ct at May 4, 2006 3:36 PM

You don't think the opressive zoning laws have anything to do with that? How are shantytowns an absense of planning? You don't think a lack of property rights has anything to do with them? Of course I think that utilities just grow like roots to supply whatever growth occurs. That's what used to happen before the progressives got 'tired of the chaos' and demanded monopolies for the utilities.

Posted by: Robert Mitchell Jr. at May 4, 2006 3:47 PM


Stop. The grave is deep enough. Your argument is that no matter what the planners did their plans wouldn't work. That's everyone's point.

Posted by: oj at May 4, 2006 4:50 PM

Actually, the three counties in the Portland Metro area have highly restrictive zoning laws that are an attempt to force people to live in a density that makes their trolley system appear to work. It's a solution that's appeal only to social engineers and those with Time Zone Rules.

One of the reasons given for voting to approve the Seattle area trolley was that every other major city on the West Coast (including Sacramento) had one, and how can you be a trendsetter without one?

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at May 4, 2006 11:24 PM