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Deborah Talbot: Downtown is for People

An excerpt from Talbot's "Who the Hell is Jane Jacobs? And what are her theories all about?" (Bowden & Brazil, March 4, 2019).

By Deborah Talbot
March 14, 2019

Jane Jacobs was an urbanist, activist, and pioneer, and one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. The aim of this book is to bring Jacobs' highly original ideas and perceptive insights to light, looking first at who she was as a person, where and how she lived, and how her ferocious intellect led her to unchartered frontiers of thought. Jacobs shows us how society is about people, not money or power. (Bowden & Brazil Ltd, publisher)


Talbot told ANN via e-mail: “Who the Hell is Jane Jacobs? And what are her theories all about? is an introduction to JJ and urbanism, targeted at students and those seeking a short introduction to her ideas and how they can be applied. It looks at her life and ideas – the latter being divided into three concepts: diversity, density, and democracy. It explains her ideas using past and present examples of urbanist thinking.”


Downtown is for People


“Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.” (Jane Jacobs, 1958)


The essay “Downtown is for people” is a polemic against ideology as fundamentally anti-democratic. Jane Jacobs rails against the planners' and architects' idea of building (and, of course, urban renewal), which is to impose a “one size fits all” and top-down vision of what they think a place should look like, as opposed to what it actually is. She argued that you can’t look at models of how places should look (often derived from other national and regional contexts). You have to see what the place you are dealing with is like: “You’ve got to get out and walk,” she says. “Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are wrong.”


People create the city and make it what it is. Jacobs explains:


“There is no logic that can be imposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. This does not mean accepting the present; downtown does need an overhaul, it is dirty, it is congested. But there are things that are right about it too, and by simple old-fashioned observation we can see what they are. We can see what people like.” (Jane Jacobs, 1958)


One way to think about how people make spaces is to reflect on pathways through parks. It isn't uncommon to see a worn grass pathway that has been made by the consistent use of people taking that route rather than the tarmac pathway put there by the council. If planners were sensible, they would carry out simple research to find the public's favorite route and put a path there.


Another example is how developers of apartments often like to put balconies on the outside of buildings. Sometimes this works – for example, if the apartment has nice views or the balcony is a good size. Often however, the balconies have poor views (of a bus garage or railway track), are too small for sensible use, or face north, and therefore never see the sun. People then use them for storage, ruining the aesthetics of the building. A more sensible idea would be to avoid balconies altogether and instead utilize the extra space for the apartment. Decent storage could be created in the basements (along with very secure bike sheds, shared laundry facilities, and other shared amenities).


There are many examples, if you look around you, of how people use spaces other than how they were intended. What they need from places becomes evident too, as it was for Jacobs.


She argues that if you look at the street from the standpoint of the pedestrian, certain factors are revealed. One such example is that the walker needs to see variety: a smattering of small alleyways, different building designs and heights, different kinds of businesses and shops, and the streets punctuated with small open spaces and visual treats. She says:


“(T)he walkers showed a great interest in punctuations of all kinds appearing a little way ahead of them – spaces, greenery, or windows set forward, or churches, or clocks. Anything really different, whether large or a detail, interested them.” (Jane Jacobs, 1958)


She compares this reality of what people enjoy in streets to how the planners design buildings:


“They are designed as blocks: self-contained, separate elements in the city. The streets that border them are conceived of as just that – borders, and relatively unimportant in their own right. Look at the bird’s-eye views published of forthcoming projects: if they bother to indicate the surrounding streets, all too likely an airbrush has softened the streets into an innocuous blur.” (Jane Jacobs, 1958)


But surely architects and planners don’t still do this? As likely as not, today they will include people in their drawings. But they are often idealized people, not real people. Ten years ago, redevelopment plans for Kings Cross station in London showed affluent and beautiful spaces, rather than the large amounts of homeless and prostitutes that gathered around Kings Cross (before they were all swept away). Most people would quite rightly argue that homelessness and prostitution is not something worth preserving. However, were those people swept up into a better life, rather than just swept on (which is what actually happened), the redevelopment of Kings Cross would have been a far more successful project, both socially and morally.


There are other ways today that architects and planners contrive to ignore people. One of these is through the concept of the smart city.


According to the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a smart city “uses digital technology to promote performance and wellbeing and to increase its ability to respond to citywide and global challenges.” (RICS 2017)


Who could be against using technology to improve urban living? Technology can be used to monitor pollution or to better allocate resources in line with shifting populations. For example, healthcare could be more efficiently distributed if local government had a faster way of finding out who and how many people in certain groups (and with likely healthcare conditions) were moving into an area. Is more pregnancy support needed? Better old age services? Technology can also help complex transport systems coordinate – something that is essential if we aspire to move more of the population out of their cars and onto public transport.


But often the concept of smart cities can have quite dystopian effects. An exhibition called “Our Urban Future” in 2013 by Siemens at The Crystal in the East End of London showed a simulation of what smart city living would look like. It demonstrated a person living in a high-rise apartment, ordering in services and food through an inbuilt smart communications and IT system, and even working from home. It makes you wonder if that person ever left to go for a walk!


Dae Shik Kim Hawkins, an activist from Seattle, reported in The Atlantic (2018) on an app designed by the city’s government called “Find it, Fix it.” The app was originally designed to make it easier for community members to report potholes and other neighborhood problems. Instead, it has become a means by which homeless encampments are reported, enabling the police and local government to quickly move them on. As Hawkins reports, homelessness has been created by the absence of affordable housing in Seattle. A high proportion of the city’s homeless are black. Nothing is being done to house them. The technology coldly and efficiently “manages” them out of lines of sight, since neither residents nor businesses are willing to have the homeless housed near them.


So, although smart city technologies could be used for good, all too often they imagine a sanitized future where social problems are efficiently cleansed from the streets. Jane Jacobs wanted, and imagined, a more convivial and caring future, one where opportunities were open to everyone and where cities were made by the people themselves.


If not planned around people, then cities will suffer the consequences. Jacobs tied the power of community to the social and economic dynamism of the city. In Death and Life, she says:


“If self-government in the place is to work, underlying any float of population must be a continuity of people who have forged neighborhood networks. These networks are a city's irreplaceable social capital. Whenever the capital is lost, from whatever cause, the income from it disappears, never to return until and unless new capital is slowly and chancily accumulated.” (Jane Jacobs, 1961)


The power of human networks discussed by Jacobs was an early forerunner of the contemporary idea of social capital, though the concept itself has a longer history and is closely tied to notions of civil society (which is how people’s informal networks and groups can act as one arm of governing power). As we saw with Jacobs, the notion of people acting together was important both for her idea of government, but also economy. Without people acting together, ideas and innovations would not be created.



Deborah Talbot is a journalist and writer specializing in urban and rural economies, development, and culture. As a journalist, she has published articles on transport, housing, urban economies, the rural creative and artisanal economy, sustainability, and urban diversity in Forbes CityMetric, InMotion Magazine, Reclaim Magazine, Dilettante Army, and Inside Housing. She is the author of Regulating the Night: Race, Culture and Exclusion in the Making of the Night-time Economy (Routledge, 2007), and has co-authored and co-edited two other books. In her spare time, she does urban and rural psychogeography, posting on Instagram @creativejournal_ne, and Twitter @DeborahHTalbot.

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Bowden & Brazil

“Who the Hell is Jane Jacobs? And what are her theories all about?” by Deborah Talbot