Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

3979 words

Urban romance

27 February 2012

From the archive | Fifty years after the publication of Jane Jacobs’s landmark book, we’re still trying to find our way around the city, writes Richard Johnstone


Object of admiration: New York’s High Line elevated park (above), built on a disused railway line. Iwan Baan © 2009

Object of admiration: New York’s High Line elevated park (above), built on a disused railway line. Iwan Baan © 2009

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier
By Edward Glaeser | Penguin | $23.95

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
By Jane Jacobs | Modern Library | $32.95

High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky
By Joshua David and Robert Hammond | Farrar, Straus and Giroux | $39.99

FOR a while there, the new technologies seemed to be promising us that we could, if we chose, live full and thoroughly modern lives as much from a hamlet as a high-rise. We could move to the country and breathe clean air and drink clean water from a nearby aquifer and all the while have the city – its vibrancy and diversity and the opportunities it creates – piped in. Except that it isn’t quite working out that way. In Triumph of the City, the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser points to the ways in which “proximity has become ever more valuable as the cost of connecting across distances has fallen.” Hell may be other people, but we want to be near them all the same. In one of the many anomalies that characterise contemporary life, we are squashing up against one another at the very point in history when we could, without sacrificing too much of the way we live now, head for the hills.

By 2009, half of the world’s population was living in cities, and that proportion will only continue to rise. Urbanisation is on the march, and by and large we are feeling better about this fact than we used to. Coinages like “sea-change” and “tree-change,” with their implied characterisation of cities as places to get out of, are already acquiring an antique patina, and hardly a day goes past without news of a symposium or webinar on the future of our ever-expanding cities, and how to get the most out of them. Meanwhile, in countries where the vast majority of people do not have the luxury of lifestyle choices, the pull of the city is even stronger. “Rio’s slums,” says Glaeser with characteristic bluntness, “are densely packed because life in a favela beats stultifying rural poverty”; not only that, but life in a favela, unlike rural isolation, does provide at least the possibility of “pathways out of destitution.”

Perhaps, for a lucky few, it does. It may even be, as Glaeser contends, that cities that “fail to attract the least fortunate” are not performing their role effectively; in other words, are not vital and creative enough to serve as a magnet for the poor. But what, then, is the role of the slums in which so many of the new urban immigrants find themselves stuck? Are they embryonic versions of the cities to which they cling, incubators – as it has become fashionable to think – of entrepreneurialism and self-help, or are they essentially one step away from holding pens, where populations are “warehoused,” to use Mike Davis’s uncompromising term from his Planet of Slums (2005), after being moved on by bulldozers when the space is needed for other things? (Typing “favela + eviction + Olympics,” for example, into Google will return plenty of recent results.)

Slums are the stumbling block in the otherwise convincing argument that cities are good for us. Cities generate ideas and actions, the argument goes. They are at once reassuringly familiar and endlessly novel and they engender in their citizens great love and loyalty – even though the basis of that loyalty may remain a bit of a mystery to the visitor, who just happens to be passing through and who finds nothing special to write home about. And, what is more, the population density of cities makes them much better for the environment. It is this last point, even though it is now widely made and hardly qualifies as radical, that still strikes us as being deeply counterintuitive. In a culture that has come to see human intervention as inherently damaging, or at the very least entailing the loss of something irreplaceable, it is difficult to accept that the familiar grey-brown spectrum of the urban streetscape is, in truth, green. But it is. “It would be a lot better for the planet,” as Glaeser puts it, if more people lived “in dense cities built around the elevator rather than in sprawling areas built around the car.”

That word “areas” does slightly blur the point, for what do “areas” mean in this context but “suburbs,” and what are suburbs but a constituent part – often the major part – of cities? More cities “built around the elevator” would mean more tall cities like New York – or more specifically Manhattan – or Singapore or Hong Kong. It would also mean fewer like Mumbai, with its legacy of draconian height restrictions and chronic slums and seemingly unstoppable sprawl or, at the top end of those “liveability” scales that appear from time to time, Stockholm, where a normative limit of six or seven storeys makes it one of the most pleasant cities in the world simply to be in. Glaeser wants us to embrace the very, very tall; to re-envision the residential tower not only as fit for providing luxury accommodation for people who are never in, but also as the key to simpler, more manageable and more satisfying lives, where everything you need is within walking distance (walking distance plus, of course, a two-way trip in the elevator). We must “stop romanticising rural villages,” he warns us, but he also makes it clear that rural villages are not the real enemy of urban consolidation. For Glaeser, the real enemy is suburbia, and it lurks within the very gates of the city.

IN ADVOCATING greater urban density, Glaeser acknowledges his debt to the formidable Jane Jacobs, a debt shared with almost every other commentator on urban life, even those who, like Glaeser, disagree with much of what she said. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, first published in 1961, Jacobs speaks up for the virtues of close-knit, inner-city life, developed organically and built over time, metaphorically as well as literally from the ground up, and against – implacably against – the kind of postwar planning that assumed it knew best, and saw the wholesale remaking of the urban landscape and along with it the displacement of entire communities as essential in creating the city of the future. Jacobs’s hugely influential book, now reprinted by the Modern Library in a fiftieth anniversary edition, seems as fresh and important in its central thesis as, by all contemporary accounts, it did in 1961, even as parts of it evoke a world which is no longer quite recognisable.

Unlike Glaeser, who writes amusingly of his own “bout of insanity” that led him to move from the inner city to the suburbs – “to choose deer-ticks as neighbours instead of people” – the whole tenor of Jacobs’s Death and Life is to put such voluntary displacement beyond the bounds of comprehension, impossible to justify even by reason of insanity. Searching “for the salves of society’s ills in slow-moving rustic surroundings… is a waste of time,” she says forthrightly. A suburban-style development in Chicago with which she was familiar may, she concedes, be “endowed with greenery” but it is also “quiet enough to make one’s flesh creep.” And yet, to many a contemporary city-dweller, that flesh-creeping quiet, those precious intervals between bouts of neighbourly lawn-mowing and leaf-blowing, are a blessed relief from the cacophony of downtown, and one of suburbia’s greatest assets. For Jacobs, the hypothetical acquisition of “a ranch house and a barbecue” is made to seem, by implication alone, at best grotesque folly and at worst what ought to be a punishable crime. Instead of retreating to the suburbs or the countryside, we should stay and fight for the inherently life-enhancing qualities of the city. As for slums, rather than pulling them down only to replicate them somewhere else, “we need to discern, respect and build upon the forces of regeneration that exist in slums themselves, and that demonstrably work in real cities.”

Life attracts life, to repeat one of Jacobs’s many resonant phrases, a process best fostered not by suburban plots or indeed by towering residential high-rises but by something in between, by a mix of four- or six- or nine-storey buildings in which people live and work and go back and forth “on different schedules” and for “different purposes.” Street blocks must be short, and “the opportunities to turn corners must be frequent,” so that the day always presents the possibility of either familiarity or variety, of taking the usual route to work or, just for a change, going another way, and opening oneself up to surprise. Based on these deceptively simple conditions, Jacobs makes a fine-grained and inspiring case for the organic city of “exuberant diversity,” in which even from the top floor there is a sense of connectedness to the street, and where the sheer numbers of people in that street, going about their daily business or watching from their shopfronts, ensure a level of safety and security for all. Jacobs highlights the capacity of the mixed-use, densely populated but still human-scale city to provide, in a seamless combination of closeness and distance, the reassuring and stimulating presence of people who while not our nearest and dearest are not quite strangers either.

Out of the daily contacts with others that the city naturally provides – with the local shopkeeper or the regulars on the bus to work – comes “a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust.” In this age of individualism and celebrity watching, there is something heartening in Jacobs’s emphasis on the importance of shared public identity. There are very few individualised characters in The Death and Life of Great American Cities – and certainly no celebrities, unless you count Le Corbusier, who gets short shrift – and those individuals who do appear do so more as types than personalities. The same is true of buildings; through Jacobs’s eye they blur into one another in a kind of complementary difference, producing an effect “both serene and unselfconscious.” Jacobs has no patience with architectural “exhibitionism or other phoniness.” She would be unimpressed by our current fetish for iconic or statement buildings, or by the popularity of the so-called Bilbao strategy, by which civic councils and boards and corporations seek to replicate the way in which Frank Gehry’s Guggen­­heim Museum has helped to revitalise that city’s economy. And as for the extraordinary success of Kevin McCloud’s Grand Designs, the building-your-dream-home television series now in its tenth season, we can only speculate on what her reaction would be. For Jacobs a home was a means to an end, a component in a vast mosaic of interlocking urban variety. It wasn’t an end in itself.

Many things have changed since Jacobs wrote, and some of these changes have been for the worse. The eyes in the street, for example, on which she placed so much importance in ensuring public safety, are now just as likely to be electronic as human, hardly an encouraging development. On the other hand her fierce antagonism towards the faceless planners, hiding behind “the dishonest mask of pretended order,” now seems, to put it gently, to lack nuance. Not all purpose-built housing estates are social disasters, just as not all ambitious plans to knock down and rebuild end in tears. In a preface to the 1992 reissue of Death and Life, Jacobs was able to refer dismissively to London’s “grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf,” a huge makeover project that seemed at the time as if it was going nowhere. Twenty years on, things are looking much better; the buildings are up and the transport links are working and there are many people happy to live and work there, in much greater concentrations than they did in the past. As a development it may not exactly be loved, but who knows how time and familiarity might work their magic? Back in 1961, though, Jacobs was up against a powerful and unsubtle opponent, and this kind of philosophical nuance was not what was called for.

“This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” That is how Death and Life in American Cities begins, and pretty much how it continues. Particularly in Jacobs’s sights was Robert Moses, the so-called “master builder” of New York who had presided over many urban regeneration projects both before and after the war, and whose proposal in the late 1950s for a Lower Manhattan Expressway would have cut right through the heart of a community that Jacobs loved. The active opposition of Jacobs and her fellow residents, together with the impact of her book and the way it helped to turn public opinion against runaway development, killed the proposal. It was a victory of uncredentialled amateurs over authorities and experts.

Most significantly of all, given the continuing impact of her book on the professions of architecture, planning and design, and on the entire expanded field of urban studies, Jacobs herself was first among the uncredentialled. That is not to say she was uninformed or lacked the necessary knowledge or experience; quite the reverse. But she spoke from a position outside the academies and the professional networks. Not being part of the system, she felt free to challenge it.

PERHAPS the balance has now shifted too much the other way, with the current default position, for those who take an interest in such things, being to advocate preservation and conservation and adaptive re-use, rather than just letting the professionals dive in and have a whole other go at it in the hope they’ll get it right this time. In Edward Glaeser’s view, this default position means that it is becoming harder and harder to change the urban landscape for the better. In New York, he laments, “zoning rules, air rights, height restrictions, and landmarks boards together form a web of regulation that has made it more and more difficult to build,” and many people would see this as equally true of other cities around the world. Yet the causes that Jane Jacobs fought for are still very much there, and they still require extraordinary individuals to speak for them. Nothing exemplifies this more than the story of New York’s High Line, and the way in which, in just over a decade, an elevated railway has been transformed from a neglected and resented relic of the industrial past into an object of admiration and urban love. And, once again, it has been the uncredentialled who have taken the lead.

In their entertaining and unfailingly interesting account of how it all came about, High Line: The Inside Story of New York City’s Park in the Sky, Joshua David and Robert Hammond take pains to play down their qualifications and experience for the tasks that lay ahead of them. Prior to becoming involved in the project that -would take him over, Hammond “worked for a variety of start-ups,” helping, for example, to launch an in-flight catalogue “selling nose-trimmers out of airplanes.” Joshua David had ambitions to be an architect, until the professor in his introductory course put a stop to that. “He brought us outside on the lawn to draw buildings and trees,” David recalls. “He said I would never be an architect because the leaves on my trees were so badly drawn.” David then spent some time writing for “fluffy magazines, looking for hot trends and stylish new ways for readers to spend money.”

Although there is something contrived about this determined self-deprecation, by the same token both men were indeed novices in the high-powered worlds of city politics and large-scale urban development. Novices who also happened to have skills, talent and connections. By the summer of 1999, when the High Line was about to assume centre-stage in his life, David had been engaged by an ambitious new company to set up its internet division. He was becoming, in every sense, a professional networker. In a revealing aside that says much about the complex relationship between public and private in the modern metropolis, he recalls this job as being “the first time in my life that I had my own office with a door to close, and so it was the first time that I could do things besides work at work.”

In a back-and-forth structure derived from interview transcripts, supported by lots of splendid photographs, Hammond and David explain how they got involved in the quest to save the High Line from demolition. At the time, they weren’t even entirely sure what it was, though of course they were aware of it as part of the backdrop to their daily lives. But each was intrigued enough by an article in the New York Times about possible futures for the High Line to attend a community forum to see what it was all about. The High Line had been built to ensure the smooth transport of freight through the city, uninterrupted by the distraction of continually running over pedestrians in the street below. It was opened in 1934, but by 1980 traffic had declined to the point where the freight line’s working life was over. There had already been a partial demolition, in 1960, at the very time that Jane Jacobs and her fellow residents were struggling against the prospect of another intrusive transport link – a freeway this time, rather than a railroad – being rammed through the living structure of the city. Whole city blocks and the way of life that went with them were being threatened with destruction in deference to the twin gods of planning and transportation, while only a short distance away stood an example of just such a ruthless intrusion, a railway line which had seemed like a good idea at the time but now, a quarter of a century later, was already past its use-by date. If the whole clunky structure were to disappear, who would miss it?

With the passage of time, the intruder of yesteryear can come to be seen as a welcome guest, and even as part of the family. But, as Hammond and David make clear, this is not a process that can rely on time and chance alone. There is an awful lot of work involved to make sure it turns out that way. The authors have fun chronicling some of the more vitriolic opposition to the High Line, and the determination, particularly from local property owners, to have it torn down. It takes someone with the vision – “wouldn’t it be cool,” thought Hammond when he first became interested in the possibilities of the High Line, “to walk around up there on this old, elevated thing, on this relic of another time, in this hidden place, up in the air?” – and the necessary energy and, in this case, a fortuitous meeting with someone who has been thinking similar thoughts, and who is also at the time of his life when he is ready for a big project.

Hammond and David both attended that first community board meeting where, David recalls, “I sat next to Robert because I thought he was cute.” David later notes that “gayness ultimately became an identifying characteristic” of the campaign to save the High Line, an observation that is not really followed up, other than by Hammond’s relating how, in the early days of the campaign, people who already knew something about the High Line would pretend that they first became aware of it during regular visits to the many contemporary art galleries in the area. Not so, says Hammond: “it was really when they were going to gay dance parties at Twilo, the Tunnel, or the Roxy.”

“We’re not close friends,” says Hammond of his relationship with David, as if to reinforce the point that it is successful working relationships and shared professional goals that really count, because they are what in the end rescued the High Line. They both understood from the beginning that what was needed was a plan, one that covered networking (both actual and virtual) and fundraising and lobbying and legal action and the garnering of high-profile support, the latter an essential ingredient of any modern conservation campaign. Celebrities may be absent from The Death and Life of American Cities, but they appear on almost every page of High Line. This might have grown tedious, but it doesn’t, because it all somehow contributes to the bigger picture. Hammond in particular is adept at contrasting his “who, me?” status with his increasingly regular brushes with fame, and at managing to convey, via a likeable line in faux-modesty, that it is not a question of his being initiated into the club of celebrities and powerbrokers, but of the celebrities and powerbrokers being initiated into his. We see up close the process by which the High Line acquired the cult status it enjoys today. “They got it,” says David of an influential couple he takes on an introductory tour. “She got it,” says Hammond of another potential supporter, equally well connected, after she too has been given the tour.

What these privileged visitors to the otherwise off-limits High Line “got” was the extraordinary capacity of this quirky structure, even in its dilapidated and neglected state, to be both in the city and out of it. The grasses and wildflowers that grew up there of their own accord – so brilliantly evoked by the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf in his plantings for the final, reclaimed version of the High Line – somehow brought the country into the city, even as city life went on, audible and visible, all around. In one of the many striking echoes of Jane Jacobs (“I’d read Jane Jacobs right before we started,” says Joshua David), the High Line provides both connection and distance, and with that too comes the element of surprise, of a new perspective on the familiar, and of not quite knowing what will next catch your eye.

“A city cannot be a work of art,” said Jane Jacobs, in italics, by which she meant that it could not simply be designed, or made, from the top down. When Hammond observes of the completed sections of the park in the sky that “it’s not about the individual plants – it’s the overall effect,” it’s hard not to hear an echo of Jacobs and her emphasis on the organic complementarity of buildings, rather than on individual, self-consciously artistic stand-outs. But Jacobs did in fact see the city as a kind of artwork, famously characterising it as a ballet, not one created by a star choreographer so much as by a group effort made up of the changing configurations and contributions and perspectives of the people on the street. “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.” The city is an artwork which we all participate in creating, using the props we have to hand. The High Line is a platform for watching the performance, and in the process for seeing new things and seeing things anew. •

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David Gonski speaking at the release of his report on school funding in Canberra this week. Alan Porritt/AAP Image

David Gonski speaking at the release of his report on school funding in Canberra this week. Alan Porritt/AAP Image