Owen Courreges: The myth of Jane Jacobs in New Orleans

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Owen Courreges

Over the past few days, New Orleans has played host to several “Jane Jacobs walks” in which residents walk or ride bicycles in their neighborhoods to better appreciate ground-level interactions between residents and businesses. These are a show of solidarity against isolation and atomization that often permeates modern society, and, a celebration of older, denser urban development schemes.

Personally, I don’t entirely agree with all of the ideas that the namesake of these walks promoted.  Jane Jacobs was ardently against urban design that focused around automobile traffic and strongly disfavored low-density (i.e., suburban) development. Conversely, I believe these are more a matter of taste  (different strokes for different folks) and not a matter of any kind of objective superiority.

On the other hand, Jacobs was an urbanist who fought the battles of the 1950’s and 60’s in cities such as New York, where planners regarded the inner-city as a sacrifice at the altar of postwar urban expansion – something to be repurposed, not preserved. She fought against the government schemes of her time.

In this regard, Jacobs was an advocate of something that I hold near and dear, namely the organic development of neighborhoods.

Jacobs was not defending a paradigm of urban development created by professional urban planners. She was not a planner by training, and perhaps, in spite of what her critics would say, this provided her with a fuller perspective. After all, the chief vice of urban planners is the mistaken belief that development decisions are best centralized and bureaucratized.

This isn’t just a case of a profession obsessed with job security, mind you. Rather, this is something more inherent to the idea of urban planning . Allowing individual actors to build and develop as they see fit is not “planning,” but the absence thereof. Oh, there might be some nudging through municipal investments in infrastructure, but no outright control. The planner’s role is diminished.

The neighborhoods celebrated by Jane Jacobs were not grand creations of planners, but the old Victorian neighborhoods that grew out of thousands of individual choices without significant government meddling.

New Orleans, for the most part, is like that. Uptown’s unique charm was not created by the Board of Zoning or the City Planning Commission. Generally speaking, New Orleans developed in an unfettered manner; only in modern times have we become obsessed with zoning and central planning.

This obsession is antithetical to Jacob’s philosophy. Now, whenever a new development is proposed, we are inundated with local residents complaining endlessly about parking issues, as if free on-street parking were a human right.

Even worse, we have residents complaining about purely aesthetic issues, as if every new building needs to be a cheap knock-off of Victorian architecture.  Now, I am a big fan of classical architecture, and I tend to think that modern buildings are angular monstrosities that assault the eyes. However, I am only one man (albeit one with impeccable aesthetic tastes).  Shouldn’t the final decision rest with the owner of the lot, if only to ensure variety?

In her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs argued against zoning that encouraged the separation of land uses.  She also lauded neighborhoods with buildings of various ages and conditions. She rejected “rationalist” planning that eschewed the complexity and ordered chaos of older neighborhoods.

We are very far from Jacob’s vision in New Orleans today. Today, we celebrate the resurgence of commercial corridors when we should be calling for more corner businesses and less concentration of commercial development. Today, we have historic preservation laws that often require perfection at the cost of basic maintenance. Today, we celebrate a “master plan” designed to better fix land uses and deter “spot zoning” (thus barring new corner businesses in residential areas).

Despite the Jane Jacobs walks, I see little of the real Jane Jacobs being celebrated in New Orleans today. And that, dear readers, is our loss.

Owen Courrèges, a New Orleans attorney and resident of the Garden District, offers his opinions for UptownMessenger.com on Mondays. He has previously written for the Reason Public Policy Foundation.

25 thoughts on “Owen Courreges: The myth of Jane Jacobs in New Orleans

  1. Absolutely right. What people also forget is that denser, walkable neighborhoods are more efficient with people’s money. Poor people do not need a car if they can walk to the grocery/work/school, saving them money. Public transportation becomes more profitable when it is efficiently used, saving the poor further money, elevating them from poor to middle class.

    • Skip,

      Agreed. We need to make public transportation as efficient as possible, mindful of the fact that its users will be overwhelmingly those who cannot afford cars. The current drive to attract “choice riders,” i.e., the wealthy and middle class who are not predisposed to public transport, is completely misguided and results in boondoggle transit projects. New Orleans has largely avoided that by focusing rail spending (with its high capital costs) on tourism corridors, but we need to continue to ensure that everything we do transit-wise can pass a cost-benefit analysis.

      • Got to spend money to make money. Anytime cost-benefit analyses are applied to transit development and efficiency, there has to be the clearly articulated caveat that the long-term goal is return on investment. I’ve seen a lot of projects scuttled because they wouldn’t make money “immediately,” and were therefore considered a waste.

        Meanwhile, if I could get rid of my truck (and I would if transit were more reliable) I’d save, on average, $600 a month by getting rid of my note, insurance, and gas prices. That’s some serious cash that would end up being reinvested in the local economy somehow.

        I personally think there should simply be a drive to attract “riders” of any demographic category. The biggest problem with anyone using transit in New Orleans is how inefficient it is as currently set up. You’d have a lot more individuals become predisposed to use transit if the buses and streetcars ran anywhere close to on-time with shorter intervals, more express routes, fewer delays, and more connectivity.

        • Cousin Pat,

          “Long term” return on transit investment is hopelessly speculative. Ninety years ago streetcars were considered archaic and unattractive, but today rail is considered “in” and buses are “out.” Focusing on the long term is just a way of shutting down the debate. Why not focus on what is cost effective in the here and now and shift policies according to changing circumstances over time? That’s far more rational than drafting policy based on guesses about the future.

          However, I agree with the rest of what you say. Improving transit efficiency is key; I just hope you understand that it’s harder to make transit efficient when funds are tied up in projects that will supposedly pay off decades down the line, and perhaps not at all.

          • But what Cousin Pat seems to argue is that “improving transit efficiency” may not come out in the black if you apply a short term “cost-benefit” analysis. Improving transit efficiency for all demographics, while possibly expensive, would open up ridership and could make it a more ingrained part of our transportation infrastructure. If that is “hopelessly speculative,” then pretty much everything is. I think you assume that higher income folks would not choose to ride a bus if given appropriate options. I’m not sure that is correct.

          • Josh,

            “I think you assume that higher income folks would not choose to ride a bus if given appropriate options. I’m not sure that is correct.”

            I think it’s probably correct. You would have to make transit incredibly convenient and luxurious to really attract a significant percentage of higher income folks, or make driving so incredibly inconvenient that transit appeared to be a decent alternative. I just don’t see how it would be worth it, and I’ve seen many projects designed to get “choice riders” that are clearly cost-ineffictive, short-term or long-term.

          • I live in a bus route “The Freret Jet”
            did not use it for the first 2 years we lived here-
            All that changed when I stupidly realized there was a schedule- now we use it often to 1/4.
            Granted we are close to a stop, but if they could integrate schedule with live updates to smart phones, many others may realize how convenient they are + use.
            Simple suggestion to complicated problem

          • You are in luck Andy! Head over to the RTA site. They have a beta version of a bus tracker up…I know its available for the Magazine bus, but not sure about Freret.

          • Josh gets it. I’m not exactly talking about a 90 year horizon, here. The purpose isn’t to shut down debate, it is to inject a little reality into government investment habits.

            Transit, like all investments, has to be set up before it can pay off. Right now we have a very slow, inefficient, disconnected system that not many people are interested in riding. Making it reliable, efficient, and connected would cost a lot of money in the short term (2-3 years) but begin paying for itself (through ridership paying for itself directly or – here’s the Jane Jacobs kicker – people spending money into the local economy somewhere other than on their cars or long commutes) between 5 to10 years down the road. Thing is, we’d never make the investment based solely off the cost-benefit analysis involving the current (smaller) ridership numbers.

            Luckily, setting up a more effective bus-based and streetcar augmented transit plan allows for maximization of cost-benefit and reaction to changing circumstances. The problem always has been abandoning the plan too quickly because costs aren’t immediately recouped. Then you have the downward spiral where constant reaction to changing circumstances makes the system slow or unreliable, lowering the trust of the ridership, resulting in lower ridership, etc. That’s why the plan needs to be a little more long term in nature, to more fairly assess return on investment.

            As for where the money is all tied up (preventing us from doing this), they aren’t tied up in projects that may or may not pay off decades down the line, they’re tied up building and maintaining roads. Roads that are obsolete almost the minute they are finished. I again use as my example the indebted, traffic-choked city of Atlanta.

          • Cousin Pat,

            I understand that it takes time to build ridership when there are improvements made to the system, so I’ll certainly grant you that. I’m not talking incredibly short-term, but I’d argue that transit improvements should show some significant payoff within 5-10 years. I’ve heard people advocate transit improvements that are supposed to pay off decades from now, and that’s just getting too far ahead of ourselves. I also think whatever system we build, it needs to be flexible – and thus primarily based on buses.

            As for the money being all tied up in roads, I strongly disagree. Over 80% of freeway costs are covered by gasoline taxes — i.e., by the drivers who use freeways — while most transit systems have farebox recoveries that are far below 80%. The costs of roads are far more internalized than the costs of transit. And I disagree that freeway improvements are almost immediately “obsolete.” If the freeway improvement increases mobility and/or capacity, it isn’t “obsolete.”

  2. Absolutely agree. I am trying to put retail onto a commercial property we own in Treme and it is a nightmare. First we had to fight to keep the zoning, second we now have to provide a damned parking lot, and third we are expected to recreate the FQ at an immense per sf cost. Crazy.

    On the other hand, it drives me crazy when I go to Metairie and see the amount of money spent to make it EASIER to drive from Covington to NOLA for work. We shouldn’t make it harder, but spending $100,000,000 or so to make it easier to abandon the city center doesn’t make much sense. Kind of like the 1960’s mentality.

    • guest,

      I think the reason for investing in an easier route to Covington is to accomodate greater development in the metroplex. New Orleans doesn’t have much room to grow geographically, which puts it at a disadvantage to nearby cities like Houston, Austin and Atlanta. Moreover, I believe that tolls and gasoline taxes will cover the great majority of the cost. Since the demand is there and most of the costs can be internalized, I’m not averse to making it easier to commute from Covington.

      The real problem is that our own city government is making it easier for Covington to attract new residents by clinging to bureacracy and red tap, the likes of which you describe. Perhaps if New Orleans were more inviting and less stifling in many regards, the sirens’ call of the northshore would not carry so far.

      • I can’t speak for Houston and Austin, but I recently read a report indicating the state of Georgia is $8 billion in the red over the next 10 years just to maintain the roads they already have serving the Atlanta suburbs. I’ve also seen time after time the government in Atlanta remove tolls and cut gasoline taxes due to the increasing demands of suburban consumers for further subsidies. There’s even a chance that Metro Atlanta will defeat an upcoming SPLOST proposal specifically designed to address infrastructure issues.

        While I think you’re right that New Orleans’ own government could do an awful lot of cutting red tape and efficient use of city funds to make living here more attractive, more people would make a market-based choice to live here if their suburban lifestyles weren’t continually subsidized so lavishly.

  3. THANK YOU!!!! X 1000
    As a huge JJ fan – and one of the J-Walk leaders (Freretian Walking Tour).
    I strongly agree with both your comments, and most of what Mr Courreges wrote.
    + The more her logic is applied, the more solutions can be found.
    Her work is often misunderstood, and people (+ myself at times) are quick to jump to conclusions- and fail to remember that science and logic were are at root of her arguments.
    To me- the most important thing she advocated was to see ideology as the enemy.
    Each city, neighborhood, and block has it’s own unique personality and problems, so solutions that worked elsewhere may not work on your street.
    Ideology blinds logic.
    NOLAs biggest problem is ourselves- and our cynical ideology or “pre-fabricated answers” we use to explain away problems rather than find solutions.
    We expect and accept failure.
    We love to complain, and rarely have a “glass half full” as we had to drink that 1st half as to numb ourselves to the stupidity we see daily.
    Sorry for the negative rant as my glass is 3/4 full, and good or bad am very glad to see Jane Jacobs discussed here.
    Andy Brott
    ps. Posted this on other page, but for those of u unfamiliar with JJ this may help-
    + others please post/link if there are better JJ articles Vids, as I would love to learn more.

  4. Good subject – the problem is CARS – the best parts of New Orleans and New York and any other great old port city were built before cars were even invented – they have become a destructive force in many ways, but most notably in the form of ugly parking lots. Mayor Bloomberg wants to pass laws and levies discouraging them in NYC. It would be nice if people would just not buy so many of them, drive them so much etc. It’s a consciousness thing. Most of the country is addicted to them. The American economy was built upon them (along with suburban housing.) So it goes….

    • Owen,

      I agree and disagree. I agree that introducing automobiles into areas that weren’t built around them causes problems. However, unless we reach an extreme level of density like New York or London, I think the resulting difficulties are managable. In my mind, the real problems arise when people think that off-street parking should be mandated in every new development to ensure that on-street parking is plentiful. If parking is so much of an issue that a developer *wants* to invest in a parking lot, that’s one thing, but it’s quite extreme to require it.

      In short, anybody who gets a house with no off-street parking should realize that they’re taking a gamble if they want ready access to their vehicle(s).

      • My favorites are the neighborhood gadfly’s who talk much, yet say little, and flip from pro-business/economic development, to NIMBY if they get to use the neighborhood meetings soapbox-
        One of the reasons I J-walk stems from the 1st one I attended 4+ years ago.
        It was on OCH, and I was new to JJ’s work, yet could smell the BS from our tour guide (I believe he was an “expert” in city/neighborhood planning- but know he to was new to NOLA post K) and we were lectured that land use and poor zoning caused OCH’s demise and what was holding it back.
        He made us walk past Browns Dairy and the Landmier’s bakery because they had a different “feal” than the block with the Yoga Studio that was “gentrifying” the
        neighborhood (thought I was going to scream when he said that…)
        Like most brainwashed sheep (braah- braahh) who came peddling granola smoke, I’m sure he has since moved on, and or has found or funded another 501c3 so he can continue to be an expert- but I left that tour angry.
        This anger was further fueled a week later, when I saw a home owner we met on the tour get HDLC screwed /fined for putting the wrong color roof on the house he restored across the Street from the New Orleans Mission….
        We are often our own worst enemy, and my anger at experts solves nothing- even if they do tell us to “go eat cake” for jobs (He said Dairy and Bakery were bad for the hood…) I should instead try to understand his and others kumbyonic ideology.
        Still have a hard time with that- especially when “green experts”, tourists, and the rest only see the Lower 9 as covered in rave glitter and pink tents- and we have a 5 Billion dollar water bill due…
        Just because your ideas worked in a lab- and you say the word “sustainable”, does make it work here- just look at Make it Right’s cradle to ladle thinking as example of that. If a house cost 10X to build, why are they only paying X in property tax?
        Or should I just to zip my lips to logic, follow the sheep (brahaaaah), and allow others to heap more praise on experts like Brad Pitt and Tom Darden?
        Jane’s Walks and her works can help fix that…

  5. Andry Brott,

    Exactly. Development should be a guy buying an empty lot and deciding what to do with it, or buying a building and deciding what to put in it. It should not be the city requiring miles of red tape to do anything but have a single-family residence.

    You know, the term “ideology” was originally coined by Napoleon. In response, John Adams openly mocked him, sarcasically praising the word insofar as “idiocy” and “idiotism” did not express its meaning, and further remarking every government during the French Revolution should be dubbed an “ideocracy.”

  6. Really enjoyed this piece. In addition to the bureaucrats and ideocrats, I put citizens with narrow self-serving interests, especially in the form of the “official” neighborhood association, among those who can thwart the growth, or the return as the case may be, of a healthy urban ecosystem. The ongoing dispute over Gabrielle restaurant immediately comes to mind.

    A good example of the sort of heavy-handed alarmist reaction to spot-zoning that is, unhappily, homogenizing many historically diverse parts of the city like mine, Carrollton, is the recent forced closure of the Japanese cafe and convenience store (search “Konbini” on U.M.) in the MARI district. Such a business would have employed a few locals and contributed to the city coffers, but more relevant to the area residents it would have made the immediate surroundings feel safer and more appealing, which ironically are two of the quality-of-life goals these associations purport to strive for. Even the casual observer can see that some neighborhood associations have become, for whatever reasons, quite contentedly secure of their influence on all matters of zoning, despite their membership being a tiny fraction of their district’s population and their opinions seemingly falling far short of being representative of the majority of the stakeholders.

    • Zimpelton-
      could not have said it better .
      Ready for another fine example- (besides whole foods parking/the homes built where they wanted to put it)
      Look at the story below this on UM-
      About limiting permits (i.e. changing the rules after people buy/invest)
      So 80+++ of us all sit through hours and hours and hours of meetings and draft and accept and AC Zoing overlay to attract New Biss. to Freret Street.
      FYI: to outside readers Freret was not doing too well over the past 40 + years and that’s an understatement-
      Businesses come- and Freret is just starts to thrive and finally turn the corner and now a few who miss ? and want to throw water on it using a Neighbors United platform?

      Which bring me to the other aspect of JJ’s work I love-
      the need to balance regulation with free market to grow a healthy City. One gets out of whack and we all suffer (i.e. I live 2 doors down from the old Friar Tucks Bar and know suffering…)
      I see it like this oil =capitalism and water =socialism- normally they they never mix, but you can make yummy salad dressing with vinegar and olive oil…
      YEAH JJ!!!!!!
      We shall see whats next on Freret this eve….

    • Zimpelton,

      I’m very familiar with that. It’s a common problem — you had a commercial structure that had apparently always been commercial, and because it only had a non-comforming use permit, it has now been reverted to residential and a business has been forcibly closed based on a stupid technicality that benefits no one. It’s ridiculous. (And this happened in Carrollton; after my recent problems there I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something in the water out there).

  7. Cousin Pat,

    I’m all about internalizing costs, so if Atlanta is cutting rather than expanding tolls, I think it’s a mistake. I want this to be market based across the board. On the other hand, I don’t believe the suburbs are subsidized versus the city, and freeway costs are typically more internalized.

    • The kicker is that Atlanta wants to increase the tolls to pay for road maintenance and expansion of transit. They’re the ones proposing the SPLOST in the first place.

      The Metro counties, on the other hand, dominate politics in the state and constantly keep the ATL from enacting tolls or taxes to pay for infrastructure. Their delegations in the legislature required inclusion of all the suburban counties in the vote on the SPLOST, and then demanded that the SPLOST make concessions to additional road building far away from the city centers. That means a tax generated heavily within the Atlanta city limits will now begin paying for more roads in Cobb, Cherokee, Gwinnett, and Hall Counties.

      I know you don’t think the suburbs are subsidized versus the city, that freeway costs are internalized, and people are making more market based decisions by living in the suburbs, but the history of Atlanta’s metropolitan development truly flies in the face of all of that. The state is truly beginning to beggar itself at the Altar of Concrete and Asphalt, and they’ve done so by setting Metro Atlanta up as the Radiant City Jane Jacobs warned us about.

      • Cousin Pat,

        Well, I’m not familiar with Atlanta’s regional governance, and you may be right that they have gone too far in favor of the suburbs. My experience growing up mainly comes from Houston, which has exercised considerable annexation power over the years so there isn’t as much conflict between city and suburb (except when an annexation battle looms). Also, there are fewer counties in play because Harris is so large. I’m actually in favor of cities having broader annexation power — it’s painful at first but allays problems later on and prevents political polarization (like you see between Jefferson and Orleans).

  8. Andy, I think a case could be made that some of these citizens groups’ underlying philosophy is borne of a mentality akin to that of the brat-bully, a condition mixing an ingrate’s selective amnesia with a child’s near impulsive disinclination for serious forethought that is ultimately damaging both to the brat-bully and his victim. Many have chosen to forget that the Whole Foods building was for decades a NOPSI facility with diesel-burning buses rumbling in and out of the neighborhood at all hours of the day. Interestingly, in my neck of the woods the CRNA, another neighborhood association, lists the old streetcar barn on Jeannette St. as one of its members’ favorite things about living in the area. You can imagine the swell of indignation and alarm from those same if the RTA tried to put the exact facility there today!

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