In dark ages, hope lies in the city
On the centenary of Jane Jacobs’s birth, architects and planners lauded her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Both loved and reviled upon its release, it has come to be seen as one of the essential books about the city, the importance of lively, diverse neighbourhoods and housing stock and a more incremental approach to building. Her nickname St. Jane obscures the fact that she was a famously tough activist who waged battle with the planning and design professions for most of her life, who belittled her as a housewife. Today she is seen as a key exponent of a more organic approach to planning and design.
Jane’s work on the economy of cities occupied her for much of the rest of her life. And here too she was generally rubbished by the economists for her lack of formal education. But her book The Economy of Cities opened up a needed examination of the urban scale just as it was becoming clear that metropolitan regions do compete as entities in the global economy, and her idea of import replacement or growing local economic niches is one that smart city economic development officers have embraced.
Jane Jacob’s last book was Dark Age Ahead in 2004 and the New York Times review called it an “extremely sloppy book” with a “lack of methodology”, and other reviewers were also unconvinced that the Western way of life was teetering on a precipice. After Creative Class author Richard Florida commended its prescience recently, I decided to have another look at its argument.
Perhaps in 2004 it was difficult for many to see disaster on the horizon, as the American Empire was in its post-Iraq triumphalist stage, and the economy has not yet begun its 2008 faltering. Yet Jacobs identified a number of long-term trends that should have caused some disquiet at the time: the decline of family/community support structures in the face of modernity and urban restructuring and migration, the failure of professions and trades such as accounting and manufacturing to police themselves through guilds and professional associations, rampant consumer culture, a lack of respect for science and bad science, and the evolution of higher education from learning to what she called credentialing to guarantee higher salaries.
These diverse pathologies had in common a dislocation from both people and place, underpinned by bigness and the rise of the corporation as a super citizen, endowed with both human and extraordinary rights and privileges. Jacobs looked back at other dark ages and characterized them as a time of forgetting of both knowledge and values, and noted that those areas which prompted recovery from past dark ages had preserved knowledge in monasteries, universities or in trades.
The rise of Donald Trump in the United States, Nigel Farrage here and nativist parties across Europe, combined with the premodern rantings of the Islamic State, certainly seem to indicate amnesia about the values that have animated us since the Second World War: respect for human rights and for providing opportunity for all, a belief in the benefit of talking together as one world, and a collateral belief in the rule of law. Resurgent nationalism and tribalism take us back to a different time—of tough talking strong men and nation states.
Underlying this forgetting is a disquiet among the populace who see the broader trends that Jacobs spoke of so often as leaving them out, and it is that failure to define a future for the post-industrial cities and towns of the developed world and the rural parts of the global South that causes dislocation from culture and tradition and generates anger and extremism.
When Jane Jacobs talked about the failure of the family she was really talking about the family as a part of the structure of villages, towns, and neighborhoods—and not as the nuclear family relocated to the suburb or to the housing estate. Jacobs called Dark Age Ahead a hopeful book, and as always she saw the hope in urbanism, in lively diverse organic neighborhoods in cities with mixed economies.
In the dozen years since the publication of her book recognition has come of the role of cities in sustainable development, in creating a civic culture and in improving education and the status of women is dawning, with the UN adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals and the forthcoming New Urban Agenda at Habitat 3 in Quito this October. As laudable as these developments are, they point the fundamental misfit between the nation state and the global economy, in an era when metropolitan regions are core actors.
The desire for nationalism evidenced in Brexit is a shrinking away from meeting the real challenges ahead. While it is understandable to recoil from dark forces, modernity is not going away and the economically and culturally diverse metropolitan regions and city/town are the vehicles for embracing modernity. As architects and planners it is incumbent upon us to try to reconcile this conflict by defining a modernity that embraces and reinforces local culture and tradition while meeting contemporary needs.
If the characteristic of the Dark Age is forgetting, then it is the collective memory embodied in the cities and towns we design for and are stewards of that may preserve the values to help us deal with the unwritten future.
This article originally ran in Building Design magazine, which is an online magazine for UK architects.