This is the last post in our series on Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. I hope you’ve enjoyed it–if not, well, it’s over now.
I have remembered so many good parts as I’ve gone back through the book, and I’ve been struck again by the contrast between Jacob’s human-oriented language and the often abstract ideals in most other books about urban planning. Her book is not about The Plan, it’s about The People who inhabit the city and make it work, and that’s why it continues to be read and absorbed for its lessons about this complex creation we call the city.
In her final chapter, “The Kind of Problem a City Is” Jacobs, seeming eerily contemporary (this book was published in 1961, before the environmental movement had really gotten going), addresses the environmental consequences of what we now call “urban sprawl.” By identifying city-dwellers and cities as a part of Nature rather than a blight, she gives us a twist of perspective that seems very helpful to our own discussions today. And she hits the nail on the head about our national obsession with taming nature, even in the face of clear evidence, both historical and contemporary (Katrina anyone?) that it cannot be tamed, only channeled: its power used with respect.
There are dangers in sentimentalizing nature. Most sentimental ideas imply, at bottom, a deep if unacknowledged disrespect. It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world’s champion sentimentalizers about nature, are at one and the same time probably the world’s most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of wild and rural countryside.
It is neither love for nature nor respect for nature that leads to this schizophrenic attitude. Instead, it is a sentimental desire to toy, rather patronizingly, with some insipid, standardized, suburbanized shadow of nature–apparently in sheer disbelief that we and our cities, just by virtue of being, are a legitimate part of nature too, and involved with it in much deeper and more inescapable ways than grass trimming, sunbathing, and contemplative uplift. And so, each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find. Our irreplaceable heritage of Grade I agricultural land (a rare treasure of nature on this earth) is sacrificed for highways or supermarket parking lots as ruthlessly and unthinkingly as the trees in the woodlands are uprooted, the streams and rivers polluted and the air itself filled with the gasoline exhausts . . . required in this great national effort to cozy up with a fictionalized nature and flee the “unnaturalness” of the city.
The semisuburbanized and suburbanized messes we create in this way become despised by their own inhabitants tomorrow. These thin dispersions lack any reasonable degree of innate vitality, staying power, or inherent usefulness as settlements. Few of them, and these only the most expensive as a rule, hold their attraction much longer than a generation; then they begin to decay in the pattern of city gray areas. Indeed, an immense amount of today’s city gray belts was yesterday’s dispersion closer to “nature.” Of the buildings on the thirty thousand acres of already blighted or already fast-blighting residential areas in northern New Jersey, for example, half are less than forty years old. Thirty years from now [like right about now, EL says] we shall have accumulated new problems of blight and decay over acreages so immense that in comparison the present problem of the great cities’ gray belts will look piddling. Nor, however destructive, is this something which happens accidentally or without the use of the will. This is exactly what we, as a society, have willed to happen.
. . .
Big cities and countrysides can get along well together. Big cities need real countryside close by. And countryside–from man’s point of view–needs big cities, with all their diverse opportunities and productivity, so human beings can be in a position to appreciate the rest of the natural world instead of to curse it.
This is the 5th post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?