Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Conservative economists love liberal urban planning

Isaiah Berlin, Jane Jacobs, it's all there: if you're a young Republican, or one of those Heritage Foundation interns put up in the nice dormitories, you're reading about the same list as the Marxists in Berkeley architecture.

Reason magazine, the voice of the libertarian Right, can't get enough of Jane:

Reason: A couple of years ago, Jesse Walker, an associate editor of REASON, wrote that your ideas are being seized by the sustainability crowd and are being abused. He wrote, "To the extent that they have digested Jacobs, they have romanticized her vision, bastardizing her empirical observations of how cities work into a formula they want to impose not just on cities but on suburbs and small towns as well."

Jacobs: I think there's a lot of truth to that. For example, the New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I've seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don't seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They've placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don't connect. In a real city or a real town, the lively heart always has two or more well-used pedestrian thoroughfares that meet. In traditional towns, often it's a triangular piece of land. Sometimes it's made into a park.

The reasons for doing so are a little different, maybe, but what this means for cities is essentially an uncharacteristic and surprising rapprochement between poor, liberal, head-in-the-air designers and the rich, multinational schemesters they serve. Uncharacteristic and surprising because the designers have all along promoted themselves as idealists of rebellion: perhaps subverting the system from within, but still subverting it.

So what's going on here? Have the compassionate designers finally convinced their corporate masters that what's good for the goose is good for the gander?

Jacobs, sounding like your average architect or planner of any experience whatsoever, has made a platform out of pointing out the shortcomings of "schools," "theories," and youthful ambition. Not surprising really: experience in practice-oriented disciplines like architecture is always pointing out the shortcomings of ideals. What makes the critique so seductive to a certain kind of Republican is that they share a common enemy in the top-down, planned-in-advance, state-run bureaucratically-farmed city government. Jacobs hates it because it crushes the soul out of organic communities, particularly immigrant ones. The Republicans hate it because it wants to regulate commerce.

Ok, let me back up. I don't actually believe that the Republicans have been duped by wily urban planners, or that urban planners are having their logic twisted against them. But I do see a funny rapprochement between two groups who don't usually talk to each other. In general, Red States and Blue States also break down as Rural States and Urban States, and even more so when Republican Suburban Areas face of Democratic Deeply Urban Areas. Remember the Metro/Retro campaign, which tried to woo voters with suave shots of antiquated rural Americana against hip urban town scenes. The campaign utterly failed to seduce to anyone who wasn't Democratic already.

These all stand as reasons why Republicans should hate Jane Jacobs. The guru of city planning for generations, Jacobs hates lawns, hates suburbs, hates homeowner associations, hates all-white-neighborhoods, hates the color line, and hates bankers. It sounds as if she wouldn't so much enjoy talking to the people who are reading her. The Reason interviewer explains, for instance, that his daughter, a lawyer, was forced to leave San Francisco because it was too expensive: clue 1. He and his daughter are (probably) the kind of suburbanite who feel entitled to more space than most of us can afford in San Francisco and New York.

That Reason-reading Republicans would fear high rents and live in suburbia makes sense to us. These sorts of facts jive with the average liberal's expectations for the Republican editor and his family: that they want to live among other white people, in the suburbs, away from crime, in cheap commodious housing designed for single-class interaction, which all, according to liberal assumptions, make the average Republican less likely to have to brush elbows with the person of color, the homeless veteran, the welfare recipient, and the immigrant without health care. Check, check. But then why are these Republicans reading Jane Jacobs?

I don't really know the answer, and I'd like to know. But one possible explanation is this: that many of the lines we've been drawing in the sand about liberal/conservative, red/blue, Republican/Democrat, are in the end fairly superficial. Like stem cell research, abortion, and gay marriage, urban planning is an issue where consensus drapes across party boundaries. Follow the lines of these groups and you watch the shape of movements and parties to come out of the fragmentations of the future.

I have another premonition about why, too. It's possible that some of these clear-thinking, hard-headed libertarian economists have noticed the rising sea-levels, changing weather patterns, escalating price of gasoline, and limited provision for transit outside of the city core. Most of them still live in the suburbs, but some of them may have started thinking about what it would be like to fall in love with a city. And for that, one has to read Jane Jacobs on immigrants.


Blogger Abby said...

I don't know crap about this stuff, but I think it's really interesting.

I love cities, but I also like rural areas. I don't even mind old suburbs--rather like them with their domesticated wilderness, so long as they have something ressembling a town core and you can access the city via train.

It's the mind numbing sprawl that kills me and the homogeneity of the exurbs.

11:07 PM  

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