Saturday, August 29, 2009

A problem in handling organized complexity

What is it that makes a city function? What makes one street interesting and another dull, or one park safe and another dangerous? Jane Jacobs asks these questions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), an attack on the urban planning theories of the mid-20th century.

Jacobs argued that urban renewal projects had misunderstood what it was that made cities interesting and safe. They tore down crowded "slums" and replaced them with monotonous garden cities full of open spaces, but these areas often became dull at best, and dangerous at worst.

Planners dreamt of village life, but what makes cities work is their density and diversity. The more people in a street, the more attractive and safe it is. The best streets are those that attract different people throughout the day and night. A park near such areas is a lovely place, but there's nothing magical about a park itself. It's the streets and the people that make the park work, not the other way around.

Jacobs vocalizes what I often feel when I observe my own city, Oslo, and try to understand why areas have the character that they do. City planning today is less dogmatic and anti-city than in 1961, thanks in part to Jacobs, but these theories left a legacy of myths behind that we're still stuck with. This book doesn't have all answers, but it helps us to look at the problem in the right way.



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