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.