Thursday, November 24, 2011

Great Conservative Books: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs was probably a liberal. After all, she lived in Greenwich Village, considered suburban sprawl part of the "great blight of dullness", and moved to Canada to protest the Vietnam War. Nonetheless, she wrote one of the greatest conservatives treatises of the last century.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) is required reading today in any urban planning degree, and Jacobs' ideas receive lip service from the very profession against which she animadverts so vociferously in Death and Life. But the uninitiated reader will be struck by how Jacobs' criticism is directed not only at the content of centralized urban plans but at the entire concept thereof. To be sure, urban planners are far wiser for Jacobs' efforts, inasmuch as they submit their theories to empirical facts and actual people.

Writing against the backdrop of the massive postwar expansion of government-built and -run urban housing developments, Jacobs defends organic neighborhoods and fine-grained diversity in uses (residential, commercial, industrial, and public buildings). She coined the phrase "eyes on the street" and originated the idea that most of public security comes from neighbors, not from police. For anyone born in the last forty years, it's hard to remember that public housing developments were built to be the clean, safe, "middle class" alternative to slums; the very notion seems further fetched that moon colonies to a modern observer! Yet even after twenty-five years of failed public housing developments, the orthodox urban planners of Jacobs' time were still hoping to destroy such "slums" as Boston's North End and replace them with modern, correct housing developments.

Jacobs eviscerates these government experts, sitting in their offices with maps. If she had written today, she would have said that they planned cities like a kid playing SimCity 2000: zone this big swath residential, zone this big swath industrial, build a cluster of public buildings here, and build lots of parks. If housing values drop, build more parks. What else does a city need to make it successful? The work of urban planners in the 1960's was childish: rather than seek to understand functioning cities in all their complexity, they actively tried to destroy and replace them with models which their limited minds could comprehend. They were engulfed in the fatal conceit of central planning, believing that the latest-and-greatest urban plans had to be superior to the chaotic working of the system on its own.

The expert planners she mocks think of themselves as artists or architects, fashioning city blocks to look all the same for the sake of "visual order" (this attitude today is most prevalent in Europe, where uniformity is valued and enforced more than in the US). But Jacobs sees the beauty underlying the visual cacophony of lively cities (p. 391):
[Cities'] intricate order - a manifestation of the freedom of of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans - is in many ways a great wonder.
Freedom is better than uniformity; that's a high conservative value.

Jacobs was conservative because she claimed not only that she had a better way to do city planning, but that the mainstream approach was actually worse than doing nothing. Socialist-liberals view government as essential to the correct functioning of economy; Jacobs (like conservatives) sees it as a foreign element introduced into the natural order. It may be beneficial, but it need not be. With government officials as with doctors: first, do no harm. As John Cochrane points out, many non-Keynesian economists supported massive government stimulus during the recession simply because "we have do something", even if they didn't believe the "something" would help!

Jacobs was conservative because she saw the uselessness of huge, overall plans. No official, no matter how enlightened, can know the character, desires, tendencies, and trends of every neighborhood: and who can successfully plan for what they don't even know? A key part of her book is the need to devolve tasks to smaller units of government, which could comprehend their own area and its needs. This point has been glossed over by many of her would-be disciples, who want to preserve their jobs and their power, and thus continue to make citywide plans that they think Jacobs would approve of. But Jacobs disapproves of citywide plans!

Jacobs was conservative because she hated the power of unaccountable bureaucrats. On page 407 she writes:
The eight rulers who site behind the raised bench (we cannot call them servants of the people as the conventions of government have it, for servants would know more of their masters' affairs)


Jacobs was conservative because she saw people, regardless of education or station, as being the best ministers of their own good. Socialist-liberal types (you can always tell them at parties) believe that they (they themselves!) could make better decisions for the huddled masses, and know better what's best for those less fortunate. You, the interlocutor, will usually be admitted for politeness' sake to the class of the enlightened, but some "others" outside the conversation are not sophisticated enough to make good economic decisions. Jacobs is disgusted by this attitude among the urban planners of the time (p.271):
Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic... To overcome slums, we must regard slum dwellers as people capable of of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests, which they certainly are.
She goes on to point out that slums remain slums because those who are successful want to leave, not because of some character of the people (black, immigrant) or the housing stock ("too dense", run down).

Jacobs had other ideas which are not characteristic of conservatism, but ought to be. She points out the myth in urbanized (now suburbanized) society that there is some rural, bucolic ideal which is better and healthier for humans. The myth is a conceit, imagined by city-dwellers who have forgotten the reality of how brutal nature is. Jefferson (a Democrat!) is the greatest culprit in imposing this myth in America. Jacobs writes (p. 444):
Jefferson's intellectual rejection of cities of free artisans and mechanics [was silly], and [so was] his dream of an ideal republic of self-reliant rural yeomen - a pathetic dream for a good and great man whose land was tilled by slaves.
This pernicious rural ideal pervades city planning. Jacobs mocks the city planners of her time (and often of the 2000's as well) whose solution to anything is MORE GRASS! Crime is high in public projects? They don't have enough grass! Children are poorly educated? They need grass! If only, goes the dream, children could grow up in nature (and not in human society) they would be good and great. (And enslave others, like Jefferson?). This is, after all, a conservative idea, too: people are basically selfish, and society has to harness and limit that selfishness. Socialist-liberals believe that people are basically good, and make terrible public policies founded on this notion. Jacobs points out that children grow up and socialize best by playing on sidewalks and streets - but social planners decry the presence of children on the street, and paternally try to force them off the streets and into playground cantonments. She cites an 'exhaustive American study of recreation' and comments (p. 84):
"The lure of the street is a strong competitor [for playgrounds]... It must be a well administered playground to compete successfully with city streets, teeming with life and adventure. The ability to make the playground activity so compellingly attractive as to draw the children from the streets and hold their interest from day to day is a rare faculty in play leadership, combining personality and technical skill of a high order."

The same report then deplores the stubborn tendency of children to "fool around" instead of playing "recognized games." (Recognized by whom?)
Jacobs is conservative because she is skeptical of scientific orthodoxy. Socialist-liberals often mock conservatives for being skeptics toward the latest scientific consensus, even though the scientific method itself is based on skepticism - and science (especially social science) has so often been wrong. Jacobs traces the origins of urban planning back to some late-19th century French architects, who imagined beautiful (but not functional) cities. The scientists worked backwards from their conclusion to create scientific justifications for it. (A side note: never let a socialist-liberal make fun of you for being anti-science: the Obama Administration ignores decades of economic research that shows stimulus spending doesn't work.)

Conservatives should read Jane Jacobs' magnum opus; so should liberals who don't understand why conservatives are so skeptical of government. Paradoxically, liberals usually love cities better than conservatives, and they will love the aspects of this book that celebrate unique neighborhoods and the liveliness of cities. Conservatives will love Jacobs' red meat about the incompetence of governments and the failure of central planning, and their minds may benefit from learning to love cities as expressions of freedom and getting over their Jeffersonian rural ideal.

Buy it for $11, or get it at your local library: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

3 comments:

Matthew Baddorf said...

I think a lot of those socialist-liberals at parties were once public health majors. Some of the students in my tutorial have made it abundantly clear that they have no regard for the personal decisions of ordinary people who want to (e.g.) smoke or not get all the recommended vaccinations.
In the particular cases our class discusses, I think there is something to be said for a paternalist position. But the overall attitude is shockingly arrogant.

On another note, I'd be curious if you know anything about the German health care system, and if you could comment on it.

Chops said...

I know nothing about German health care, unfortunately.

Undergrads are the worst of the paternalistic bunch. They don't know how to do their own laundry, yet they believe they know how to run the world.

Carol L. Douglas said...

I grew up in an area decimated by Urban Renewal. Just visit Niagara Falls, NY and Niagara Falls, Ontario, and see what it did for us. In New York, we tore down all that outmoded urban blight; in Ontario they put tchotchke shops in those storefronts. Buffalo had a useless, single subway line built down its Main Street with Federal dollars and central oversight. The net result was blocks and blocks of shuttered businesses. (Who can stay in business when their street is closed for two years to dig a tunnel?) Lockport, NY, saw its charming brick downtown levelled and replaced with brutalist monstrosities.

Not that we’ve learned anything. I was shocked to see the extensive building work at the site of the former River Front Commons (across the Genesee from your former home). Not that it isn’t lovely, but it really annoys me that the only significant project in this community is a public-private partnership with significant tax advantages and oversight from state and local officials.