Jane Jacobs at a Save West Village press conference. (Library of Congress)

My copy of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities is dog eared and marked up. There are little arrows on the spine pointing me back to important quotes because the original tabs I stuck there are long gone. It’s lived in as many cities as I have and been quoted in half the papers that got me through school. 

Now, let’s be really honest. It’s a hard time to talk about Jane Jacobs’ style of urbanism. Busy streets and active playgrounds feel crowded and contaminated. We are told that every encounter we have with another human could literally kill our grandparent.

Jacobs has a response to this criticism. Unfortunately, it was at the end of her 600-page book. Except for the lunatics with assignments in a graduate urban theory class, most of us skipped the second half of the book. We loved the parks, streets, and whipping on the highway builders. Taking down Brutalism and orthodox planning is joyous to read. Then she started talking bureaucracy. And international trade. We fully dropped out once she started going deep into economics, complexity, and quantum entanglement.

That last thing is a lie. You didn’t know because you didn’t read it. 

It’s time to correct that. Go back to The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and read it cover to cover. Backwards. Here’s why.

Jacobs structures her book as an expanding spiral. In each of the first three sections, she takes us out one step further. She moves from the neighborhood to the city to the nation, at each level, checking in on certain concepts like diversity of uses and the limits of order. Then the final section, titled “Different Tactics,” each of the chapters is stand-alone little vignettes focused on fixing something she identified earlier as screwed up.

Until the very last chapter of the book. That is where we’re going to start, and enjoy the chapters in reverse order. You didn’t think we were going to go literally, letter-by-letter backwards, right?

What kind of problem is a city?

“The Kind of Problem a City Is” feels like an addendum. It starts with someone else’s perspective, not a traditional Jacobs observation of modern life or reconsidered definition. The perspective is that of Dr. Warren Weaver, who was, of all things, an engineer and mathematician. His work on translation between languages and numbers formed a basis for modern computer science.

Weaver observed that scientific thought did really well at describing simple interactions with calculus and trigonometry. Through the 19th Century, humans spent a lot of time perfecting the math for calculating two variables in relation to one another. Then at the beginning of the 20th Century, science turned to describing the interaction of huge numbers of variables. Probability theory opened up the ability to anticipate what happened when two turned into two million. No single interaction can be anticipated, but we got really good at saying what would happen on average. Weaver described this as disorganized complexity.

Science has a blind spot describing the inbetween. Medium numbers of players that, when closely examined, show increasing interactions. They’re not random, but quickly become incalculably numerous. Cities, for Jacobs, fall into that category called “organized complexity”–too many to be simple, and too few to be disorganized. “Although the interrelations of their many factors are complex, there is nothing accidental or irrational about the ways in which these factors affect each other.” To illustrate how this blind spot fails cities, Jacobs turns to her two favorite whipping boys: Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City and Le Corbusier’s Radiant City.

Howard’s Garden City is the famous perfect suburban center that looks like an atom or a map of the solar system. Separated uses reducing density from a central cluster. Pastoral green lawns and a polite rail line that connects Garden City residents to the bad and dirty city from which they were pulled.

To Jacobs, the Garden City is a solution to a 19th Century question: how many houses do you need for a set number of jobs? Two variables, clean interaction. Howard then broke it down into other relationships such as schools per number of houses, greenbelt acres per town acres, towns per metropolitan area. “On this simple base of two-variable relationships was created an entire theory of self-contained towns.” Overly simplified, but powerful in reshaping real cities into an ideal.

A creature of its 20th Century roots, Le Corbusier’s Radiant City relies on statistics. Specifically, the famous modernist architect relied on the average. To build his perfect city of high rise cubes along wide highways, Le Corbusier developed Modular, an idealized person of 1.83 meters tall. “His towers in the park were a celebration, in art, of the potency of statistics and the triumph of the mathematical average.” We took the next tool available, and looked at cities through its lens. 

But to Jacobs, that is not the greatest sin. Planners did not fully abandon the two-variable analysis. Instead, we used both to boil huge numbers into overly simple ones. It was possible “to conceive of city traffic, industry, parks and even cultural facilities as components of disorganized complexity, convertible into problems of simplicity.” Cities are, “understandable purely by statistical analysis, predictable by the application of probability mathematics, manageable by conversion into groups of averages.” Planning detached from the real world by squeezing out an average, then dropping it into an abstraction. 

The Unaverage

Jacobs’ prescription for correcting this is a disciplined search to avoid abstractions. We must seek the “unaverage” which are clues involving very small quantities that “reveal the way larger and more ‘average’ quantities are operating.”

In today’s parlance, we may call this an outlier or the Long Tail or a Black Swan, those icons of cultural economy upon which a thousand business lit careers were created. But to Jacobs, it wasn’t necessarily about finding the individual key to unlocking some grand urban mystery.  “For cities, processes are of the essence.” The key is in the process, the method of unlearning a century (now almost two) of orthodox planning. It comes from resisting the call to create an abstraction, pulling apart the components of an average, and examining the city in its messy day to day life.

That call for continued questioning points to one of Jacobs’ deeply held values: honest examination. She rails against ways “the incurious (or the disrespectful) have always regarded problems of organized complexity: as if these puzzles were, in Dr. Weaver’s words, ‘in some dark and foreboding way, irrational.’” Jacobs appreciates that these are hard problems, admitting such is not failure. People who govern cities only fail when they stop honestly examining. She even expanded on irrational–“a chaotic accident” or “solidified chaos”–as tags that show people have stopped honestly examining. Tucked here, in the back of the book, is Jacobs’ most damning insult. Plastering the city as chaotic without trying to make the least real observation is not just damaging to the city. It’s the sign of a weak mind. 

Into the larger book

Reading from the front of the book, we do get caught in Jacobs description of a lively street, and her conditions for city diversity. But now we can read from the back with the understanding that it’s not only about the street or the uses. The city is a creature of organized complexity, and we damage it by simplifying and abstracting or failing to ask why we are simplifying and abstracting. It changes our perception of the earlier chapters of the book. 

In the chapter “Gradual Money and Cataclysmic Money” we get to the line “Credit-blacklisting maps, like slum-clearance maps are accurate prophecies because they are self-fulfilling prophesies.” Reading forward, that is an observation that comes after chapters on unslumming and the impersonal nature of maps. Reading backwards, we now understand how the act of simplifying and abstracting wealth to create those maps fit into a larger systemic mindset. It answers how people can be so clinical when allowing bald racism to flow from their mapping pen.  

Then in the chapter “The Need for Mixed Primary Uses” when we get to the line “American downtowns are not declining mysteriously because they are anachronisms, nor because their users have been drained away by automobiles. They are being witlessly murdered, in good part by deliberate policies of sorting out leisure uses from work uses, under the misapprehension that this is orderly city planning.” On first read, this Hell Yeah moment is a grand punctuation on a long discussion of Oakland and Pittsburgh being bisected by highways. Because we read backwards, we know that orderly city planning is averages and abstraction. Highways can only run through here because, once planned, they are no longer real places. The ideas of downtown and work and leisure have been simplified and lost all real meaning. 

Again moving towards the front, in “The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety” we learn that planners and architectural designers “operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet.” Reading forwards, it’s a slight line, a dig at some frequent punching bags. Reading backwards, primed to understand organized complexity, we see how much destruction it takes to achieve “obvious order.” 

Then we arrive at the introduction where she says “In this book we shall start…adventuring in the real world, ourselves. The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them.” It seemed like such a little line the first time. Having read backwards, we know the kind of revolutionary concept this actually represents.

Cities in the new now

Given recent events, this article could turn to a glib closing joke like “Now that we all have so much time…” We’re all locked inside, so ha ha ha, we can get to the things we’ve been putting off. 

It’s not a funny joke because 1) this lockdown is going to be devastating to individuals, families, and the neighborhoods we love, and 2) the mere mechanism of what we’re being asked to do–separation–is being called the death of city living. There are already bad takes about how quarantined Millennials are falling out of love with their hip neighborhoods and how transit and walking are going to be considered too dangerous for a post-corona world. It’s already resulting in terrible policy recommendations.

Those are also the reasons that it’s more important to turn back to Jane Jacobs and reunderstand her argument as a defense of organized complexity. We’re going to have two years of dealing with this terrible virus and the complete havoc from its mismanagement. It would be easy to look at Jane Jacobs’ robust urbanism as a passé anachronism of a time before The Virus. But if we understand the roots of her argument–beyond the gauzy allure of a well walked street–we can better justify fighting for great places. 

Reading Jacobs backwards reminds us that city vitality comes from organized complexity. Stripping complexity in the name of average and abstraction destroys real lives and real places in the name of false safety and simplified order. It’s also in that last chapter where Jacobs responds to that concern about crowded and contaminated cities. We shouldn’t be afraid of cities, particularly now:

“Cities were once the most helpless and devastated victims of disease, but they became great disease conquerors. All the apparatus of surgery, hygiene, microbiology, chemistry, telecommunications, public health measure, teaching and research hospitals, ambulances and the like, which people not only in cities but also outside them depend upon for the unending war against premature mortality, are fundamentally products of big cities and would be inconceivable without big cities.”

Article Author

Ray Dubicki is a stay-at-home dad and parent-on-call for taking care of general school and neighborhood tasks around Ballard. This lets him see how urbanism works (or doesn’t) during the hours most people are locked in their office. He is an attorney and urbanist by training, with soup-to-nuts planning experience from code enforcement to university development to writing zoning ordinances. He enjoys using PowerPoint, but only because it’s no longer a weekly obligation.