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C200: What Would Jane Do? (The Granular City as a Mediator of Change)

2011 March 15
by Liz Dunn

There’s been some Jane Jacobs-bashing lately in the more-urbany-than-thou circles in which I sometimes travel, and I just won’t stand for it. Respected colleagues have been complaining that Jacobs did us a disservice by failing to prescribe policy, but that wasn’t her M.O, and it’s not as if we’ve excelled at picking up where she left off. Now we have Ed Glaeser’s recent suggestion that Jacob’s ideas about preservation were naïve, and that she didn’t really “get” density, or at least not the skyscraper version that he subscribes to.

Jacob’s work, or at least my reading of it, celebrates fine urban grain and repurposed buildings not for their static qualities but as necessary mediators of change. Jacobs didn’t say that buildings need to be short instead of tall or old instead of new, but rather that we need a diversity of them in order for new residents and businesses to get a foothold and move up the ladder of social and economic development. She promoted an incrementalist approach to densification because the economics of colossal new projects make them “inherently inefficient for sheltering wide ranges of cultural, population, and business diversity.” She exposed the incubator capacity of granular neighborhoods, and the multiple reasons why small independently-owned companies (the ones with the largest local multiplier effect) don’t tend to locate in cavernous downtowns.

She also pointed out that bigger projects mean more egregious errors. Design is subjective, but we can probably all agree that big-block sites do not, as a rule, seem to inspire the architecture profession’s best work. Unlike skinny infill, the big shiny mistakes aren’t easily absorbed into our existing urban fabric. And when they replace older pieces of granular city that have real value in terms of both function and identity, for newcomers and old-timers alike, we shouldn’t be surprised if density becomes a dirty word.

There is a temporal quality to the production of sustainable urban form that is perhaps difficult for macro-economists and policy-makers to recognize. It isn’t reflected in static measures of square footage or units or building heights, but rather in a slow but steady turning of the dial toward a higher intensity of users, connection and access, resource efficiency, character and identity, and choices.  Jane would no doubt remind us that the critical issue isn’t what density should look like, or how much is enough, but rather how we insert it more surgically and gracefully.

< Two views of 16th Street, Denver; photos: Matthew Blackett, Google Streets >


Liz Dunn is the principal of Dunn & Hobbes, LLC, a developer of adaptive reuse and small-scale infill projects in Seattle, and is currently the Consulting Director of the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab.

9 Responses leave one →
  1. Matthew 'Anc' Johnson permalink
    March 15, 2011

    Mr. Glaeser has good points that aren’t easy to dismiss. Yes, it is true that caeteris paribus rents in older buildings are cheaper than in new, but that doesn’t take into account demand. Supply and Demand dictates that if demand for an area increases, while supply stays constant, prices will rise. As Americans continue to return to cities, and as cities are focusing more on providing the infastructure and amnenities that make city life great (which Jacobs certainly deserves a nod for) demand will continue to rise, which will raise prices even in older buildings. One way to take pressure off is to build up. Yes, rents in a new 12 story building will most likely be higher than in the 3 story it replaced but by putting more units in the same space you can relieve pressure on the area as whole keeping other rents from rising as fast as they otherwise would.

    Also he is not saying that Preservation as a whole is a bad thing, only that it should be used as a scalple, to preserve those key buildings that need to be preserved, and not a blanket, to keep a neighborhood or city in a time capsule.

  2. Matt the Engineer permalink
    March 15, 2011

    I think everyone here is right (how’s that for picking a side?). Unrestricted growth is good for affordability and creating a diverse and functional city. Fine-grained architecture and small storefronts make for a more interesting city with a soul. Rebuilding in pieces rather than all at once preserves culture and allows for those footholds for small edgy businesses.

    But none of these concepts are mutualy exclusive with the others. We can have it all, if we’re careful. As a rough sketch of how this would work, try this set of rules:

    1. Don’t limit height in areas where you want new growth. I like either Glaeser’s fee-for-views model, or Seattle’s ammenity-for-height model to compensate for negative effects.
    2. Do limit storefront widths, to encourage smaller businesses and an interesting pedestrian experience. Perhaps even limit building widths, to keep the mega-block effect from happening.
    3. Relax zoning in multiple areas of the city at once, to keep too much growth from happening in one area too quickly. Consider allowing only a set amount of redevelopment per 6-block radius per year if this is still a problem.
    4. Use Glaeser’s limited historic site concept. Allow a fixed amount of historic preservation that changes slowly (say, a fixed percentage of land square footage, re-evaluated every few years).

  3. Zef Wagner permalink
    March 15, 2011

    If Seattle or any city really cares about this “granular” development pattern that Jacobs promoted, they have it in their power to make it happen. One way is to be more critical of the constant developer requests to combine parcels. From what I can tell, this is usually a “rubber stamp” exercise that is never really challenged. When the Joule developer bought the block on Broadway, the city let them combine at least 5 or 6 parcels into one, then built a huge breadbox building that pretty much everyone hates. Cities can also limit the size of storefronts, making the occasional exception for anchor stores. The important point is that cities should actually strive for diversity of form and function, not just density as an overriding goal.

  4. March 17, 2011

    Ms. Dunn’s observation and her common sense application of Jacobs’ wisdom is delightful to read. Those of us out here advancing Jacobs’ ideas at the fine-grain scale of the places where we live and work know that the over generalizations of Glaeser are more of convenience to the author than a contribution to our efforts to create great places. What Dunn has done is show that people like her who work to adapt and reuse existing buildings and the holes between them, are the ones who are building places of lasting value–places that add to the quality of our days and the sustainability of our challenged systems. Kudos and thanks for your words of wisdom and active engagement in regenerating cities.

  5. Bill Bradburd permalink
    March 18, 2011

    I’ll pile on with the compliments to the wisdom of this post.

    Too often we are confronted with ‘density’ as the means to success and height is the golden ticket. And, unfortunately, ‘carbon’ or affordability ‘supply and demand’ arguments are presented as further justification for the bigger-is-better worldview.

    Where Jacobs (and Dunn) align is acknowledging that density is the natural outcome of organic change in a city.

    Coupled with a stronger focus on what Jacobs called ‘import substitution’, we can find the way to a more sustainable urban existence by closer attention to local economic development.

    Our piecemeal approach to urban planning and zoning, and our reliance on ‘the market’ (which sadly has objectives different than ours), have turned us away from looking at our city with open eyes and seeing the real possibilities that are there for us.

    One only has to look at SHA’s megalomaniac vision (pipe dream?) for Yesler Terrace to see how far we have to go.

  6. March 18, 2011

    Bravo for an inciteful critique of an oversimplistic view of density, height and preservation. Glaeser’s economic thinking is filled with wisdom and parallels closely Jacobs’. But he totally confuses height and density and preservation and is much too Manhattan-centric. Preservation in NYC is already quite limited to 3% of the city’s buildings and some of the densest neighborhoods are the long-evolving, traditional ones with some new and a lot of old buildings, more compact density than height. Many new buildings are being built in historic districts, big for their surrounding but not overwhelming and always more expensive than the old.

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