At a time when nations are gridlocked and corrupted by special interests, cities are taking on poverty, social isolation, and the climate crisis.
November 18, 2014
This article appears in Cities Are Now, the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine.
When I first met Jane Jacobs, I didn’t know that she was the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that she was dismissed as a “housewife” and “a crazy dame” for her takedown of the orthodox views of cities, and that she had been arrested for inciting a riot.
The suburban craze, fueled by highways and suburban sprawl brought with it white flight, car dependence, and congestion.
At the time, I was a preteen, trailing behind my mother on visits to her friend’s Hudson Street home in New York’s West Village. I remember the adults laughing over the dinner table at the latest attempt to build an expressway through lower Manhattan and discussing how Jacobs and her neighbors would stop it. And I remember lying awake in the guest room, listening to the sounds of a wide-awake city.
I learned later who she was. By that time, her views had replaced those of the men (nearly all were men) who advocated bulldozing neighborhoods for “urban renewal” and building freeways through cities.
Jacobs had little formal education beyond high school, but she paid close attention to the people and ways of life she saw every day. She wrote of the sidewalk ballet, a decidedly unwonky term for the complex ways people move through urban spaces. To her, diversity, density, and mixed use create vitality, and draw “eyes on the street,” a term she coined to describe what makes a street safe. These are the factors that make cities vital—even exuberant.
Cities have gone through tough changes. The suburban craze, fueled by two things Jacobs scorned—highways and suburban sprawl—brought with it white flight (blacks were excluded from the exodus), car dependence, and congestion. Racial exclusion squelched opportunities for people of color left behind in cities with shrinking tax bases, neglected city services, and few jobs.
Today, though, cities are making a comeback as young people seek out the sort of walkable and bikeable neighborhoods that Jacobs celebrated. Grassroots groups and elected officials are remaking cities. At a time when nations are gridlocked and corrupted by special interests, cities are taking on poverty, social isolation, and the climate crisis. Author and political scientist Benjamin Barber even proposes that mayors should rule the world.
How are cities transforming themselves?
Today, cities are making a comeback as young people seek out the sort of walkable and bikeable neighborhoods.
Los Angeles is facing chronic water shortages as a result of climate change. In a flash of brilliance (sparked by years of work by TreePeople and others), L.A. is moving away from expensive stormwater drainage to systems that harvest and store the city’s surprisingly abundant rainfall.
In Medellín, instead of abandoning poor neighborhoods to drug cartels, the city is connecting them to the city center via escalators and gondolas.
Boston’s Dudley Street Initiative revitalized housing via a community land trust, and did so without displacing low and moderate income residents—now it’s working to make land available to urban farmers.
What sort of city will our grandchildren live in? Some say cities will be high-tech, massive, and built into the sky. But architect Jason McLennan offers up a humbler, human-scale vision of cities that can thrive in harmony with nature.
Where cities go, the rest may follow. Jane Jacobs wrote: “Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon.” Today’s signs of an urban flourishing are good news for everyone.