The causes of the changes in American cities over the past hundred years are subject to interpretation. Three of the most original, convincing, and influential decoders of American cities are Lewis Mumford, Jane Jacobs, and David Rusk. Contemporary American urban and regional planners see cities largely through their eyes. Architects also weigh in, of course; their designs give form and feeling to cities. And average citizens contribute mightily to their communities’ contours through the zoning laws they support. This interplay between planning, design, and regulations goes a long way to explaining what we regard as right or wrong with our cities.
Americans have what generously can be described as a love-hate relationship with their cities. Since more people have been moving out of cities than moving in, the present mood towards cities may be described as disenchantment — a relative, qualified disenchantment, perhaps, but definitely more chagrin than delight.
To be disenchanted, one must first have been enchanted. So when did we regard our cities with deep affection? When was this time of affinity, if not ardor, with our urban spaces?
For Jane Jacobs, the spectacularly influential observer of urban America, the golden age of American cities was characterized by small family-owned and -operated grocery stores, delicatessens, hardware stores, clothing stores (not yet referred to as boutiques), bakeries, and butcher shops; neighborhoods that met our daily needs; downtowns that satisfied anything beyond our daily needs, with wondrous cinemas, restaurants, and department stores; sidewalks, street lights, street cars, and street life; a sense of place and a sense of community — all of which were disappearing when Jacobs wrote her best selling books in the 1960s.
Jacobs’ solution — the return to enchantment — was to allow cities to regain their historic texture and sinew and scale by opposing the huge housing projects and highways and parking lots that were advocated at the time by mainstream American urban planners and economic developers.
Jane Jacobs’ ideas of the American city supplanted those of Lewis Mumford, a towering figure during the formative years of American urban planning as a profession. In a large body of work beginning in the 1920s, Mumford advanced the theory that each city was unique with its own story to tell: a tale of geography, history, climate, industry, and politics — some parts purposeful, others accidental, but all woven together to explain why this or that city is the way it is. Mumford identified elements and patterns that all American cities had in common by virtue of having to abide by the same federal regulations, such as basic commuter flows and sites of exchange and power. But even these, according to Mumford, were endowed by local customs and practices with their own flavor and meaning, so it was best not to generalize about cities. Mumford had a soft spot for early-twentieth-century urban America, before, as he saw it, the Great Depression siphoned off investment from cities.
It’s fairly simple to understand why Jane Jacobs is revered today while Lewis Mumford, after 40 years of preeminence as an urban theorist, is regarded as passé. Mumford privileged the creativity, imagination, and agency of local leaders and citizens, traits that are tough to assess objectively. We can, however, measure and analyze the physical attributes that Jacobs venerated: building heights, setbacks, the shape and location of doors and windows, the size of blocks of buildings, viewsheds, and the quality of materials. Not only can we measure these forms, we can evaluate them according to the distances human beings can walk, the level the human eye can see, and the aesthetics humans prefer. Jane Jacobs, in other words, gives us both the components and standards for mathematical models of the world in which we live and thus came to inspire two generations of urban designers and planners.
Jacobs, unknowingly or not, gave a modern voice to the ideas of Marcus Vitruvius Pollio, the Roman engineer who wrote the multi-volume De Architectura in the two or three decades before the birth of Christ. According to Vitruvius, all architecture imitated nature. Since humans represented nature in its perfection, the most stable, functional, and beautiful architecture reproduced human proportions. The most perfect architecture, in other words, was what we now call human-scale or pedestrian-scale.
Vitruvius influenced Renaissance architects, but, like Jacobs, was turned on end by capitalism. Vitruvius’ architectural theory flourished until the industrial revolution when function and cost came to dominate form and design. Jane Jacobs fought an uphill battle for mainstream acceptance from the first word she wrote and only very recently have her ideas been taken seriously.
The post-World War II enthusiasm for building a better America, fueled by unprecedented economic growth, carried with it an urge, a lust not only to expand as never before but also break from the past. Freed of the styles that disciplined Renaissance builders, post-war American architects gravitated towards an aesthetic that shouted monumentality, aerodynamics, and cheapness, as expressed in ever-broader highways, ever-more-aloof structures, and a predilection for the newest, synthetic materials. Master planning came into vogue as a comprehensive way of dealing with urban problems, but this usually meant imposing the prevailing economic and aesthetic values on residents and neighborhoods that didn’t necessarily share them. Don’t want a freeway through your city neighborhood? Too bad. It’s important for moving cars to, from, and between the outskirts where most investment is occurring. You don’t really want to paint or pay extra for brick, do you? Let’s clad all our new houses in vinyl. Suburban was the standard; anything else risked being labeled substandard and becoming a target for distain or removal.
Jane Jacobs’ theories were counterintuitive. How could small and traditional possibly outperform big and brash in a growing America that was flexing its muscles? Jacobs became a hero to academics, a few urban planners on the fringe, and a dwindling number of community activists who chose to stay and fight for their threatened urban neighborhoods. But architecture paid scant heed to her, and zoning paid even less. Zoning regulations reflect average persons’ wishes and prejudices and suburbanization was (and still is) considered modern, forward-looking, emancipating, wealth-creating. Buildings don’t get built or profits made with nostalgia, which is how Jacob’s ideas appeared to many in the real estate development industry in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
America faced the titanic challenge after World War II of housing tens of millions of new baby boomers and immigrants, building factories and offices for the millions of new jobs being created, and moving and parking millions of new cars. The master planning of vast areas of a city, the designing of buildings with a blank slate rather than an order established by Jacobs or Vitruvius, and the replacement of the old (designed by someone else) with the modern (designed by me) could be terribly satisfying. The ambition seemed to be its own reward to people like Robert Moses and modernist architects. Politicians, not wanting to be spectators in the new metropolitan order, followed the money by following suburban norms.
It was only when population and job projections slowed in the late-1980s and people began to question the hows and whys of growth that Jane Jacob’s ideas entered the mainstream. But Jacobs focused on the city when most Americans were now living in the suburbs.
In a series of compelling studies in the 1990s, David Rusk, a former city mayor, showed how cities were linked to their suburbs. According to Rusk, economies had regionalized, but their potential was constrained by the nineteenth century governance models followed by many communities with a region. Rusk demonstrated how the physical, social, and economic isolation of the poor in inner cities could contribute to the decline of entire metro areas. Moreover, Rusk quantified how financial disparities within cities, and between cities and suburbs, could be reduced through regional revenue policies, regional housing policies, and regional land use policies.
David Rusk offered a plausible analysis of American metropolitan areas, a new way of modeling change that corresponded with visible shifts in local economies and geographies, and a clear means of monitoring regional performance. It was an exciting new policy direction that didn’t involve major new public investment or government consolidation or restructuring, but a redistribution of existing metropolitan resources. Relatively small changes in regional affordable housing policy, for example, could have major positive implications for urban public education and safety and regional workforce development — three of the biggest public sector cost drivers. Rusk’s theories, in essence, both captured the moral dimension and appreciation of agency of Lewis Mumford by championing social and economic inclusion and supported Jane Jacobs’ insistence on the primacy of place.
Since at least the end of World War II, planning, architecture, and zoning have aligned in the U.S. to give the majority of Americans the growth, change, and physical design they wanted. Today, the majority is changing in many ways; most obviously, it is aging and diversifying. But the motivations of real estate development policies, then and now, remain the same: to provide a comfortable, affordable, predictable, and convenient lifestyle for the majority of Americans. The American Dream, at its most basic level, is a lifestyle of comfort and convenience without too many surprises at a price we can afford.
Today, we reminisce fondly about the well-paying jobs in the post-World War II golden age of American manufacturing, but we forget that most of those jobs resulted from the re-alignment of planning, architecture, and zoning during that period from urban-oriented to suburban-oriented. We are now seeing what may be the beginning of a new re-alignment, a shift in focus from use to form and from transportation to mobility and accessibility for all.
Will the new confluence of planning, architecture, and zoning allow cities and regions to take off? Will enough businesses spring up around universal design and sustainability and personal mobility to create transformative economic and social forces? Capitalism will always exert pressures to expand. Can we expand inwardly, yet profitably? Does the term “expand inwardly” even make sense?
The big question is: Are the stars lining up so our cities once again may enchant?