12 Books of Christmas: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

There were quite a few failed attempts to create the Panama canal before someone finally got it done. The problem wasn’t really a technical one, it was malaria. We’d always wanted a direct route from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and John Frank Stevens accomplished that by looking at the situation, shrugging his shoulders, and changing almost literally everything, adapting the landscape to his needs. The construction of the Panama Canal is nothing more than the decision to just do whatever was necessary to change the world to suit mankind. I sometimes think of it as the last breath of the grand Victorian-era visionary construction – but sometimes I think about Hoover Dam instead. The Panama Canal is a grand expression of the human drive to change the world to suit ourselves instead of changing ourselves to suit the world. Next time you turn a heater on in your house instead of putting on a jersey, think about Teddy Roosevelt and the poor bastards he appointed to change the world. We’ve always been good at thinking big in these little ways, because we can get sufficiently far from them to keep them in perspective. We’re not always so lucky with the things closest to us: cities.

I’ve used my carbon clown shoes to see a good number of the Great Cities of the world, and even a few American ones, and while I don’t pretend to any great understanding or insight into, say, Rome, or Amsterdam, it has been interesting comparing what I did see with my own familiar New Zealand cities. Auckland, in particular, seems like a terrible city. It’s public transport is discombobulated and the big shopping areas seem devoid of nightlife: it’s a sprawling mess. Luckily I don’t have to exercise my own brain on understanding what different physical and social structures have lead to a great city like Lisbon compared to a terrible city like Auckland, or to understand why Cuba Mall/Courtenay Place are vibrant parts of Wellington when compared to sterile commercial zones like Lambton Quay – Jane Jacobs has already done all the hard work by outlining design strategies in the “life changing” book on town planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

One thing which seems painfully apparent is that cities need careful management and nurturing, as while market forces play a role they’re likely to inadvertently strangle the very areas with which they should be symbiotic. I think you can see this in the “gentrification” sweeping through the prosperous English cities, replacing local cafes with yet another fucking Pret a Manger or Eat. Yet as easily seen, if a central planner with a flair for the automobile gets hold of a city, that can be even more disastrous as the city is carved into car-sized chunks sterilising the whole thing. So, rather than repeat Jacobs’ wisdom verbatim, it’s worth taking a quick look at where her lessons have been perfectly executed: Las Vegas Casinos.

Jacobs has a relatively small number of key strategies for enlivening a city. It must facilitate multiple travel routes, it must structure its public spaces so that they’re useful throughout the day/night cycle, it must have a diversity of rent rates to allow a complex eco-system of economic power to develop, and it should avoid cul-de-sacs or hidden areas because they inevitably attract crime. This is like a manual for designing the layout of a casino. They are labyrinthine places, directing and redirecting you past a host of parasitic businesses like cafes, bars, restaurants, entertainment arcades, shows – you name it. Most casinos offer a range of minimum-stake tables, from $5/bet to the high-rolling tables where real money changes hands, which allows most of the bigger casinos to cater both to the mildly interested tourist like myself as well as people with a briefcase of money they don’t need anymore. Casinos offer essentially one main activity, but they do everything in their power to prevent time from having any presence inside – there are no windows, no clocks, and the menu at the couple I visited properly was the same at all hours, like a Denny’s. Finally, Casinos are as close to a panopticon as we’ve got, at least until the next major terrorist attack in the US – robbing one is supposed to be impossible, and it’s a very inhospitable environment for most casual crime.

Jacobs explicitly writes about Great cities, but as this little thumbnail sketch shows, her wisdom is actually more scalable than you might think. Think about the design of an office, for example. A big open-plan office with only hot desks is anecdotally one of the most demoralising places to work, and it doesn’t measure very well on Jacobs’ basic concepts for cities – it’s monolithic so there isn’t a meaningful variety of routes through nor can it develop much of an eco-system. Not an infallible guide, for sure, but worth bearing in mind.

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.

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