Lack of Diversity Plagues Jacobs's Vision of Urban Change

Fifty years after Jane Jacobs published her seminal book, "her vision of urban change [has] won the day," says Inga Saffron. Though her vision of physical diversity has prevailed, "that vision is also giving us a new kind of sterility."
February 15, 2013, 12pm PST | Jonathan Nettler | @nettsj
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"Jacobs, whose The Death and Life of Great American Cities serves as the bible for city-lovers and modern planners, believed that blighted neighborhoods would regenerate organically if left to their own devices," writes Saffron. "But Jacobs’s predictions of multi-generational, multi-race, mixed-income kumbaya hasn’t turned out quite as she hoped."

What Jacobs called "unslumming," would see existing residents "fix up their homes as their economic circumstances improved over time," attracting a gradual influx of newcomers drawn to "the charms of these diverse, lived-in neighborhoods."

"Unfortunately," says Saffron, "that rarely happens. Today we know the process she described by another name entirely: It’s not unslumming. It’s gentrification, a word that doesn’t sound nearly as quaint or benign....Appealing as it sounds in theory, Jacobs’s picture of hard-working locals hammering and spackling their way to an unslummed paradise has proved more romanticized than real."

"It turns out that the old complaint against gentrification, that it drives out minorities, is far too simplistic. Instead, we should be worrying about a different concern: It hasn’t built the diversity that Jacobsian urbanists envisioned, and that cities need. Diversity, in all its forms, is the urban advantage; it’s what lured a suburb-raised generation to 19th century rowhouses in the first place. After all these years of trying to revive their old neighborhoods, what a shame if it turns out that American cities have birthed a new kind of monotony."

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Published on Friday, February 15, 2013 in The New Republic
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