Thursday, September 16, 2010

The City

I've been reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. From what I've gathered, it's a very influential, sort of pop-urban planning text that turned convention on its head when it came out in 1961 and is now canon.

The book basically tries to define what a healthy city is, and identify strategies to encourage their development.

The city looms large in my thoughts right now. It's such an incredible creature; a mythical beast. Cities emerge up out of the landscape like giant, chaotic stalagmites, like computer circuit boards. Their formation is so convoluted, the result of many forces and intentions pushing and pulling in so many different directions - and yet their fabric is interconnected along so many routes, they take on an almost organic existence, become a single, living entity.

Jane Jacobs doggedly pursues diversity in city life. Her focus is largely economic diversity - diversity of use. She posits that for an area to be healthy, it should be vibrant, glowing with people, connections and intersections. To her, the city fulfills needs and creates community. A healthy city street fosters contact between neighbors, it serves to socialize children, providing role models and varied adult influence, and the busier it is, over the largest possible spread of hours, it works to ensure safety. Jane Jacobs' city is the anti-suburb, it is mixed use taken as far as it can go, people heaped on top of people all living and breathing and brushing up against each other out in the streets.

Anita and I are at a point in our life together where we're starting to turn over from placeless 20-somethings to people who want to have careers, own a home, have kids some day, and engage with a place. We're becoming more specific, you could say. This focusing raises many questions, one of which is Where to be? It's something we've talked round and round, and researched and thought about. Where to live? A city?

I don't really think of Seattle as a city. Seattle is more like a glorified town that has the economy of a city. As of 2009, only 617,000 people actually live in Seattle city limits, which ranks 23rd in the country. New York city alone has over 8 million. But what sets Seattle out to me is how much of it is single family housing and how much of the city is green. In almost any neighborhood in the city, if you unfocus your vision and just observe colors, you can turn 360 degrees and more than likely you'll end up with a 50% green field of vision. Seattle has trees everywhere, landscaping, and huge, wooded parks. There's an old growth tree I'm thinking of in north Capitol Hill that's probably 6 feet in diameter, just shaking the sidewalk off as it stakes its claim to the land. Hell, I did a search for the last bear (as in, yes, the large furry species of mammal not the, well, nevermind) and it was freaking 2006. The poor thing was Tasered and tranquilized to death by police and wildlife agents several blocks off campus in the U District. When I can step outside and actually see the stars and maybe get mauled by a black bear, sorry, but that's not a city.

These are the elements Jane Jacobs identifies as contributing to vibrant, healthy city atmospheres:

Mixed Uses - Limited not only to commercial and residential, but broken down to include different types of activities that give people reason to be in a place at different times of day. For example, a park where people walk their dog in the morning before work, housewives take their children midday, business people eat lunch, children play in the afternoon, and lovers stroll at night. For this park to be vibrant, it must be near residences, offices, nightlife, restaurants, a school, etc. Without this level of activity, the park threatens to become dead, unused, unloved, and even dangerous.

Short Blocks - Short blocks encourage penetration by pedestrians into streets they would never have reason to pass through. This allows the success of small businesses on street corners and further in. Jane demonstrates with drawings and experience how a particularly long street, which no one save the people who live on that street have reason to traverse, can create a dead zone which cannot maintain health or vigor.

Aged Buildings - Surprisingly, Jane specifically points out the value of having a mix of old and new buildings in a neighborhood. She has an excellent chapter where she demonstrates how high rent and low rent structures combine to create vitality and health. She identifies certain types of businesses as barometers of the health of an area, specifically used book stores. (Interestingly enough, Joel Garreau, who definitely read this book and is the writer of Edge City: Life on the New Frontier, cites this exact same indicator.) A used book store cannot afford to rent a new space. Newly built spaces require high rents to pay down the loans needed to built them. While used book stores, art galleries, artist lofts, camera repair shops and so on may attract people to an area, this very attraction will destroy itself if it's developed too far. Similarly, an area that sees no development will fall into disrepair, fail to attract investment or businesses, and potentially become a dead and dangerous place. Either way, the danger is too much of one thing, which she identifies as a natural tendency in city evolution to be guarded against.

And lastly,

Density - Jane says each city and each block within each city carries its own set of circumstances and conditions that make it impossible to proscribe an ideal density. She ultimately ends up suggesting a number somewhere above 100 dwelling units per acre.

Beyond the poignancy and accessibility of her arguments, her style is engaging. The book is peppered with quotations from literature and culture used to introduce topics and underscore points. Here is one of my favorites, used to illustrate how proscribing one density standard for all cities would be ridiculous:

"What are proper densities for city dwellings?

The answer to this would be something like the answer Lincoln gave to the question, 'How long should a man's legs be?' Long enough to reach the ground, Lincoln said."

I have a lot of friends, my girlfriend included, who find cities abhorant creatures. They find them to be confusing, congested, polluted, distasteful, dead concrete places that preclude any possibility of living life naturally. This line of thinking inevitably ends up with some variation on a back-to-the-land theme, where you can run free in the fields and pick your food straight from the earth.

There is a certain allure in this way of life to me. I see the intuitive flow and simplicity. I see the sense of having a direct link to the natural world, and how we're divorced from that in the city. I see the mental and emotional lightness of having space and time and air and light and living life at a slower, more deliberate pace. I think there are two things that keep me from throwing my suitcase in the car and leaving my phone and computer behind and never looking back. One, is the vitality of cities, and the other is a sense of engagement in the human process and responsibility toward the whole.

The Responsibility Angle

When things are not feasible for everyone, because they arise out of a set of specific, unreplicatable circumstances, they aren't solutions. I think of these things are not existing, not being real.

If you didn't have to work because you were on a trust fund and were able to do unpaid internships until you were offered a sweet job, that's good for you, but it doesn't help me understand how to get a good job. If you inherited $20,000 from your rich uncle and used it to put a down payment on a house, fine, but it doesn't give me insight into how to own a house. Given the population on the planet, I don't think the idyllic, bucolic small town life is possible any longer. Sure it will continue to exist and people will continue to live in and enjoy it, but it's a dead paradigm, a fragment of a past that is slowly disappearing. It doesn't offer a solution anymore, because it isn't sustainable for everyone to have a 20 acre farm with a pond and a little patch of woods where they hunt their own meat and build a treehouse for their kids. I may even be lucky enough some day to be able to choose this life, but I think it would feel like giving up to me, retreating, burying my head in the sand and leaving the world to deal with its problems on its own.

So, do I want to live in a city? It's a tough question. I find myself drawn to that small town life all the same. It has its charm, its direct, emotional appeal. I've never lived anywhere that didn't have ground level access. That, to me, is what makes a city. I grew up in a house in the suburbs on a 3/4 acre property with nice big Ash trees and a front yard half the size of a football field. I hated the monotony of the suburbs, so I moved to a city that's full of life and culture and a mixture of uses, but still I've sought out stand-alone homes to rent rooms in. I've always wanted ground level access, to be able to just walk outside barefoot and step on some grass, to drag my 5 gallon batch of beer outside so as not to spill it inside when transferring and cooling, to sit on the porch and sand a wood-working project, or let it sit drying with paint or chemicals I wouldn't want inside. I've never pushed myself to give this up, and so, in some way, I've never really embraced the city.

100 dwelling units per acre amounts to at least 150-200 people living on the footprint of my parent's property.

The co-housing community where I live now, which feels, to me, like a very healthy and well-designed level of density, is exactly 3/4 of an acre (according to the King County Parcel Viewer, which is an awesome tool for these kind of things). There are 23 dwelling units on this site, with approximately 60-70 people living here. This is suburban density level according to Jane Jacobs; she would have 4 times as many people living on this land. Her vision, I suppose, is mostly composed of 3-5 story buildings with commercial below, residential above, and the occasional large lot for a library, community center, park, or other public facility. The only part of Seattle that has these densities is Downtown. I don't think Capitol Hill even comes close to this. This is why I say Seattle isn't a real city.

The Vibrancy Angle

The thing that's great about cities, and that's a result of their density, is that cities are pulsating and bursting with life. It takes so many people crammed into such a tight place to create some things, things which wouldn't exist otherwise. Cities have always been the places of innovation and invention in society. Cities are where ideas come from, and where the human experiment is pushed forward. Cities are exploding with people scheming, striving, growing, changing, yearning, and creating. What is an isolating individual tendency in a small town becomes a full blown, righteous, in-your-face subculture in a city, and it can support any number of such subcultures, all overlapping and interacting in interesting ways. Cities are the mecca of this cultural diversity as well as Jane Jacobs' economic diversity, racial diversity, and any number of other things that make life interesting and worth living. As much as I appreciate nature, I am also a student of culture, and while the city may look like a dead concrete place to some, I see the weeds growing up through the sidewalk and generally find them so much more interesting for it.


I don't know where this goes. I guess you live life to find out your story. I'm interested to have the conversation with any of you, and hear your thoughts, because it's something that I haven't figured out, and what are we here for but to huddle together and hem and haw and generally kick about until someone looks up and says "Yes. That there!" and points off into the distance?


jumpfightgo said...

I've struggled with these questions too. The biggest obstacle seems to be navigating the balance between our ideals for what society should do and choosing, as individuals, where to settle and make long-term connections with place and people.

I think you've done that in Seattle - it may have been an arbitrary place to move to, but you've grown a network of friends, learned the neighborhoods, and found a community that fits your passions.

The happiest people I know have committed to a community. It may not be perfect, but they get out of their house and meet people. Whether it's a rural or urban community, the real key is just getting out of the house and into other peoples' lives. I have a friend in NYC who's moving because all he does is work and hand out in his apartment, and there's no reason to pay NYC prices for that. So it's not just living in a city, but taking advantage of it.

Unfortunately, I am generally pretty dissatisfied with the reality of cities in America for many of the reasons that the Death and Life of Great American Cities, and Edge Cities, talk about. Our transportation and development infrastructure are best suited to anonymous, car-centric, consumerism. We're yearning for cooperative civic engagement, shared activities and spaces, and smog/noise-free green space. So no matter where we move in the U.S., we're going to be dissatisfied. Even Seattle, while better than many other American cities, is still pretty far from our ideals. So this question of "city" versus "suburb" or "rural" is almost always a question of "least-shitty city" versus "relatively quiet but bleak suburb" versus "dying rural community".

That's pretty pessimistic you might say, but I think it's actually a pretty accurate description of the contrast between our ideals and reality. And I don't think that's because we are absurdly idealistic or naive, it's that development has been driven by unfettered capitalism, racism, classism, ignorance, lack of imagination, etc. for so long that anyone with basic interest in community, equality, and concern for the environment will just inevitably be diasappointed with our current state of affairs.

But conceptually, we also know that dense urban development is a reality for most of the world. We know that the history of suburbs is largely a story of privileged people fleeing racial integration, class conflict, and other social problems. We know that working, rural communities are inaccessible fantasies in a service/creative/industrial economy. So where else can we look than to live closer together? I like to think of urban living as a social challenge - being happy in the city isn't about individual choices so much as throwing your lot in with others and committing to making the best of, and improving, our shared resources.

If we can't do that, then we'll never solve those same problems on an international level.

Ross said...

I appreciate your responses, Blaise and Forest. Somehow, I knew this topic would engage you both.

I think commitment is an important component of being happy, as you point out, Blaise. I've been thinking for a couple years about different types of freedom - the freedom to go anywhere, do anything, be free and unfettered, and the hidden constraints that imposes, things you'll never able to do because they involve processes that require years, lifetimes of being in one place, doing one thing to access. It seems that you only get so many chances to start over in life, and each one necessitates beginning this process of getting to know a place and forming community over again. So that's the other type of freedom, the freedom of constraint, commitment, and the experiences that time and process yield.

There's also a theme of doing what's best for yourself and casting in your lot with others. I think it's in everyone's nature, an inherented subconscious desire to acquire property, material things, expand into space as much as their means will allow. I think we all end up in a gated suburb in a 7000 SF home with a boat if given the opportunity. It takes a real intentional effort to choose not to have that when it's a possiblity. I think everyone would choose a little more space for the kids to play, a nice safe neighborhood with big trees, a reliable car with navigation, some woods near by, a creek in the back yard, and then when you have wealth you have to worry about losing it, protect yourself, soon you're so far away from life you can barely remember what it was like. Which doesn't make anyone happy. It almost seems that overcrowding is a prerequisite for a vibrant community to exist. Or, if not overcrowding, then at least density, people being close enough to be a little uncomfortable and want to do something about it, witnessing each other's lives and choosing to engage in them, ideas brushing up against and bouncing off each other, the whole messy business of life. So that's a tough line to walk. I wonder if just having the means to have a stable life makes it impossible to choose to live in a vibrant environment.

jumpfightgo said...

"witnessing each other's lives and choosing to engage in them" mmm, good words

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