Tag Archives: Jane Jacobs

Spreading ideas through the urban process

A shorter version of this post originally appeared at Next American City, where I was live blogging at the 20th anniversary of Living Cities.

Steven Johnson and Paula Ellis, of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, discussed some of the themes in his new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, including the unique environment for innovation that cities provide. Johnson draws on the work of Jane Jacobs and Geoffrey West to demonstrate that innovation is most likely to happen in places where humans are densely clustered because entrepreneurs rely on the work of others. Both to see through the uncertainties of the future to realize profitable ideas, and to overcome the challenges of product development, entrepreneurs need to live in urban areas.

Johnson began his conversation explaining that many of the ideals that emerged in the Scottish Enlightenment came out of coffeehouses, through the spontaneous conversations that many brilliant men had, and the evolution of their ideas in this urban space. Looking back to these Enlightenment ideals, we can see that Adam Smith, perhaps one of the original urbanists, explained that the division of labor is limited by the size of the market. Continued urban growth provides individuals with growing opportunities to specialize, as both the consumers and technological developments that fuel the market process are consolidated in the same place.

In West’s work that Johnson referenced, he explains that, unlike firms that become increasingly bureaucratic and inefficient as they grow, cities continue to become more productive as they grow in size and density. As Johnson explained, cities have a “liquid property because they have the convergence of diverse people sharing a space. This is an incredible asset.” West demonstrates that the relationship between city size and innovation is exponential. “What the data clearly shows, and what [Jacobs] was clever enough to anticipate, is that when people come together, they become much more productive.” Smith demonstrated that wealth grows through the exchange that urban environments make possible.

However, unlike other scholars of entrepreneurship, Johnson diminishes the importance of profit in facilitating entrepreneurial alertness. Megan McArdle points out that he places a greater importance on “openness and inspiration” than on the profit motive in facilitating entrepreneurial innovation. Of course, entrepreneurs don’t operate in vacuums. Entrepreneurs living in a densely populated city will draw on each other’s work — and find markets for their products — more so than in less densely populated places. And the legal environment surrounding intellectual property, or openness, certainly affects innovation. Despite these outside influences, though, the profit motivation and the essential feedback mechanism that profits and losses provide cannot be downplayed in the market process.

Urban scholars from Jacobs to West to Johnson have built on the insight that dense populations facilitate innovation, where the size of the market is continually growing. While it’s often easy to fall into critiques of urban policies and focus on the challenges facing individuals in cities, yesterday’s conversation struck a happily optimistic note.


Microfinance for urban entrepreneurs

I’m at the Living Cities 20th Anniversary today, liveblogging on the discussions that panelists are having here. This post originally appeared at Next American City.

Patrick McCarthey of the Annie E. Casey Foundation articulated one of the missions of the Living Cities collaboration as helping Americans in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution. As the collaboration seeks to help cities develop, it also seeks to improve the development of human capital in these communities. To this point, Dudley Benoit of JP Morgan Chase suggested that improved efficiency in capital markets is key to achieving this goal.

While microfinance has flourished in developing countries, investors have not been as eager to provide small loans to small businesses in the United States. While philanthropic organizations focused on community development have often focused on the making top-down improvements to the physical landscape of urbanites, Benoit brings up that the human capital that allows cities to facilitate economic innovation is more important than their physical components, and that economic development must be a bottom-up process.

Living Cities’ President and CEO Ben Hecht points out that no one individual can solve the problems that a city poses – as Jane Jacobs and Friedrich Hayek both identified, complex human systems must draw on decentralized knowledge that cannot be centrally compiled. Access to capital for urban entrepreneurs is essential for the economic rebirth of cities that Living Cities fosters.

Bad Retro:The Federally-Planned City

An under-discussed development in the Obama Administration is the re-animation of a policy better left in faded journals:federal urban planning.

The idea behind “federal blight removal” in the 1950s and 1960s was to pave over old neighborhoods, often derided as “slums” by the planning elite, and replace them with the fad du jour, Le Courbousier inspired high-rises.The intent was social engineering by constructing “cities of the future,” made of superhighways and towering apartments. As Martin Anderson documents in his 1964 book The Federal Bulldozer,the effect was the destruction of housing stock and neighborhoods, and the displacement of people.

Jane Jacobs,a resident of Greenwich Village who successfully fought off  Robert Moses’ proposal to put a four lane highway in Washington Square Park offered a seminal critique of urban planning in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her key contribution is that cities are organic and complex social orders that grow with the residents and the life of the city. Cities aren’t imposed via top-down plans but grow spontaneously from the ground up.

Jacobs’ analysis of life in Greenwich Village formed the basis of the New Urbanism and its push to engineer the organic through low-density, mixed-used, walkable urban villages. While the aesthetic principles changed the basic error that cities can be imposed on people from above has remained in force.

The Administration’s throwback decision to federalize local planning only compounds New Urbanism’s central error. Slamming the cities with federal grants for bike paths, transit, edifices, roads, is nothing more than the promotion of the current wisdom of what constitutes ‘”correct” city living. It will leave its own artificial mark and short-circuit the progress of the city emergent.

Can Tysons be Fixed?

Last week, Tyler Cowen wrote about planning issues in Northern Virginia on Marginal Revolution.  He compares Tysons Corner to Clarendon, demonstrating the importance of street layout in urban development. While the two areas are geographically close DC suburbs, they have very different atmospheres because Clarendon has successfully fostered pedestrian-friendly mixed use development, while Tysons has a lower residential density, fewer public transportation options, and roads that are much more difficult to traverse on foot.

Fairfax County planners are in the process of creating a redevelopment plan, promoted as a way to make the area more urban and less car-dependent. Cowen points out that simply providing incentives for higher residential density will not necessarily give Tyson’s the vibrant street life experienced in Clarendon:

The whole area is carved up by major roads, including three significant highways, one of which could be called massive.  Try crossing Rt. 123 at Tysons Corner or try crossing Rt.7. Even some of the “small” roads on this map are harder to cross than is the main Clarendon/Wilson thruway in Arlington.  It’s not just the roads and the overpasses; crossing or circumventing either major shopping center is a daunting experience.  Furthermore very little is laid out in a line and thus the presence of Metro stops (right now there aren’t any) would not cover the area nearly as well as they do in central Arlington.

Even for those not familiar with these Northern Virginia suburbs, Cowen’s description of Tysons probably conjures images of urban sprawl problems across the country. On his blog The Bellows, Ryan Avent responded to Cowen:

At any rate, it does seem odd that once again, we have a libertarian-ish figure cheering on the planners’ decision to artificially reduce density.

It has been widely asserted by writers such as Will Wilkinson that libertarians tend to support government incentives that favor roads and driving as opposed to public transit, even though both require taxing, spending, and distortions of the free market.  This larger issue may be a relevant point for debate in future developments. In existing suburbs, it remains true that existing traffic patterns that are not navigable on foot are difficult, or at any rate very costly, to redesign into bustling city neighborhoods.

For creating blocks that support high residential density and mixed use, Jane Jacobs recommends short blocks and small streets, similar to those witnessed in Clarendon, although it is easy to imagine that she would like to see much wider sidewalks even there. However, it is worth considering whether her policy recommendations would be feasible in a place like Tysons where land value is very high and the urban geography is already completely designed for transit by car.

Cowen recommends focusing on new, more urbanist developments in other parts of Northern Virginia that are currently less built up than Tysons, which may make more sense. Working within the municipal government confines that currently rule streets and zoning, cost benefit analysis must be relied upon instead of market signals.

Is Smart Growth the Way to Better Cities?

Anthony Flint of the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy wrote a Boston Globe op-ed explaining that cities are well placed to become increasingly important centers of population and commerce. This is due in part to the ongoing pattern of national urbanization and in part to the Obama administration’s emphasis on the importance of cities and sustainable development.

20071018-garden_city_detailSmart growth, a policy championed by some people within the environmentalist and urbanist movements, advocates goals such as improving public transportation, protecting the environment, creating affordable housing, and supporting economic development. These goals are hard to find fault with, but the question remains whether federal policy is an appropriate place to be promoting a specific type of urban development.

Flint cites Jane Jacobs as an important thinker in shaping the contemporary ideal of urban living with vibrant mixed-use development that invites pedestrian use. While this sort of development fits in with some “smart growth” objectives, Jacobs emphasized that land use needed to be determined using local knowledge rather than top down mandates. She fought these mandates at the municipal level, and one can only imagine how she would react to development direction from the newly created Office of Urban Affairs.

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Brad Pitt Seeks Stimulus

Make it Right House in New OrleansVariety reports that Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation is seeking stimulus money to continue their work building houses in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward:

In a high profile appearance that even drew live coverage on MSNBC, Pitt visited Washington in March to promote Make It Right, meeting with President Obama and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with an array of cabinet secretaries and other elected officials, including Shaun Donovan and Energy Secretary Steven Chu. With Pitt was producer Steve Bing, who has been a benefactor of his housing project.

The foundation was among 12 non-profits joining with the New Orleans Redevelopment Authority to file an application last week for a total of $65 million through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which is administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. If they get the funding, Make It Right would probably start spending the money in the spring of 2010. Depending on how many homes the foundation has built by then, it could be used to reach their goal of 150 homes in New Orleans or it could expand the program beyond that, said Kim Haddow, a spokeswoman for Make It Right.

The Make It Right Foundation (profiled here on ABC’s 20/20) — as well as dozens if not hundreds of other local initiatives and non-profits — have done incredible work in rebuilding the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina. But much of this success is due to their independence from large government bureaucracies. Stimulus funding has the potential to act as what Jane Jacobs called “cataclysmic money.” There is a real danger that if social entrepreneurs and non-profits like Pitt’s become dependent upon federal funds, they will in effect become arms of the federal government. This would have a dangerous effect on civil society, and reduce our resilience to disasters and shocks, whether natural or economic.

Another problem, of course, is that it’s not a lack of committed federal funds that have slowed rebuilding in New Orleans; it’s the difficulty with getting that money to the street level, and the mixed and oft-changing signals emanating from all levels of government. Stimulus money has the potential to be yet another promise that never comes to fruition, or comes too late to be helpful.

And moreover, having one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country, is New Orleans really the ideal place to invest stimulus cash?

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