New book: The Good City

The Good City is a series of short, vivid essays on what Allan Jacobs, former San Francisco planning director and Berkeley professor, has seen or done in locales across the world.

Until I opened The Good City, I had always thought of Allan Jacobs as three things: a Berkeley professor (emeritus), a former San Francisco planning director, and an authority on streets and boulevards. I had no idea of his other dimensions — that he had worked as a planner in Pittsburgh and Calcutta (quite a combination, those two), that he had consulted on the huge Pudong development in Shanghai, and that he had grown up in Cleveland, Ohio, when it was, in his words, “a real city.”

I also didn’t know just how human and penetrating a writer Jacobs can be. Like his fellow San Franciscan Dan Solomon (Global City Blues, 2003), Jacobs is a great story-teller who makes fascinating, sometimes mordant forays from architecture and community planning to other, surprisingly varied aspects of life.

The Good City is a series of short, vivid essays on what Jacobs has seen or done in locales across the world. When he was in his thirties, out of the blue he gave up a city planning position in Pittsburgh and moved to Calcutta to be part of a planning team sent there by the Ford Foundation. Though hardly anything about Calcutta escaped his notice — from the ochre color of the buildings to the status-hobbled relationships between local people and foreign consultants — he offers a critical view of his own role, as in this passage:

I learned that I didn’t belong in India, doing what I had been brought there to do. Nor did the Ford Foundation team belong there; not in a planning role. Neither I nor we understood the cultural environment we were working in or its relation to the physical setting; and we never would. How dare we think that we could tell our hosts what to do? At worse, we were involved, largely, in a type of colonialism without calling it that, together with, at best, intellectual professional tourism.

His immersion in India, which began in 1963, taught Jacobs how important it is to have a deep understanding of a place and a culture before you try to take charge of events. “To know what you don’t know and that you probably never will know is no small lesson. ... it can lead to great caution before telling people what is best for them,” he says.

That lesson was reinforced by his move, in 1967, from a teaching job at the University of Pennsylvania to planning director in San Francisco — a city that then (unbeknownst to him) had “basically a no-power-to-anyone form of government.” Says Jacobs: “Working in San Francisco, it took years to understand the environmental ethic of the city and the Bay Area — that it was grounded in climate, the Central Valley and the Sierra.”

Some of his shortest and most intriguing pieces are profiles of city people: the bullhorn-wielding traffic cop near the Imperial Palace in Tokyo who somewhat ridiculously makes sure that pedestrians and cyclists obey every rule; the Korean immigrant couple who are having a hard time operating a marginal coffee shop in Toronto; the old men who stand or sit in public spaces in every city and town in Italy. Jacobs captures the essence of people and places.

He is sad and a little angry about Cleveland, where, as a boy in the 1930s, he learned to walk backward through the dense crowd exiting a movie theater (and thus enter without buying a ticket).

“Cleveland once had a wonderful public transportation system, of streetcars and buses that criss-crossed the city,” he recalls. But after World War II, the voters of Cuyahoga County, “with urging from professionals, decided that a rapid transit line, east-west through the city center, would serve transit better... . Trouble was that it followed old routes of the city’s many rail lines, the lines of least resistance: the stops neatly avoided proximity to where people lived or, with the exception of one downtown stop, where they might want to go.” Says Jacobs: “[A]n unwillingness and inability on the part of local planners ... to envision what good urbanism is” is one of the factors that has brought the city low.

He is not much happier with Pudong, where leaders listened cordially without any intention of implementing his ideas of “going lightly on the land, developing only what is necessary, minimizing travel space, and maximizing land to remain to remain in food production and in water sources.” The people in charge wanted a “world-class city” of tall, impressive buildings, not a more restrained, environmentally sound future.

Jacobs is not impressed by developers, land economists, and architects (in the US and elsewhere) who say that to build efficiently and economically, “it is necessary to have large parcels of land so that large and presumably efficient floors can be built in their buildings.” Why does he scoff? Partly because he’s been to Tokyo, where he has seen many new buildings, often 10 stories high, rising from lots as narrow as 25 feet. He concludes: “If you believe that you must build on small pieces of land, and if you believe that buildings must be built under a certain height, then it will be economic to do that. ... The key word is ‘believe.’”

He is also skeptical of authorities who concentrate on remedying traffic problems. In Italy, he points out, the Romans “don’t widen streets or build new bridges or freeways or anything like that. It’s a terrific city. In an hour a stranger knows he’s perfectly safe on the streets.” The moral: “Cities that are obsessed with the movement of cars and spend a lot of time and money trying to avoid or solve traffic problems are invariably less livable than cities that don’t.”

This is a candid, refreshing book, made even better by drawings that Jacobs has been making on sketch pads throughout his career. Read The Good City and you just might avoid making the world a more soulless place.

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