Jane Jacobs “The Uses of City Neighborhoods”


Jane Jacobs’ passion was urban planning and creating city neighborhoods, where community lines were nonexistent. She has said that “Americans are poor at handling city neighborhoods” in that developers prefer to create self-contained areas reminiscent of “repetitious towns”. She argues that there is no place for nostalgia or a romanticized notion that city neighborhoods should reflect small town life with distinct geographical boundaries and homogenous groups of peoples. In fact, Jacobs states that “districts are handicapped by sameness” and that in actuality it is the blurred spatial lines and shared spaces in cities that give rise to tightly woven neighborhoods larger than their geographical lines.

While giving no more weight to one or another, Jacobs argues that there are three useful kinds of city neighborhoods to consider: 1) city as whole; 2) street neighborhoods; and 3) large subcity districts, where each augments the others. To accomplish this, planners must plan neighborhoods where the streets are a lively, spontaneous system of threads woven throughout the district. Include areas that incorporate cross-use areas such as parks, libraries and other public places that foster a sense of shared community rather than duplicating spaces for each area or building physical barriers that foster a Turf mentality. These characteristics organically create the identity of an effective district.

Relationships are also important for it to be effective. Possibly invoking the idea of a liberated community, Jacobs states that its important for districts to have people that create and maintain many varied sets of relationships from within and without of the district. Jacobs labeled these folks as “hop-skip people” as they know a person who knows a person that can do X or provide Y; in other words, resources are only a hop, skip and a jump away. These hop-and-skip relationships add density to the existing tightly woven neighborhood ties, ties that are important in building social capital that can sustain the effectiveness of the district.

However, when the continuity of these networks and ties are threatened, as in the case of urban revitalization and renewal planning, it can “mangle the tight skein“ of community relationships. Jacobs argues that revitalization efforts can displace the “real” people of the community that have grown and fostered the very neighborhood networks that have sustained it and can send city neighborhoods into a type of shock where the intricately woven fabric of society begins to fray, creating less effective districts.

At one point Jacobs discusses the fact that people invest years developing relationships and once severed can destroy a person as an ”effective social being”. Having just marked the 10-year anniversary, I think of all the displaced New Orleanians and the impact that the loss of relationships must have had on them. If anyone has any suggestions for literature on the issue please send my way.



Claude S. Fischer “Theories of Urbanism”

Claude Fischer discusses three major theories of urbanism in the context of the way it transforms behaviors and the psychological effects on individuals. The first, deterministic theory is specific to the place in that its main tenet is that, unlike the rural environment, the urban environment increases social and psychological disorders. As theorized by Georg Simmel and subsequently Louis Wirth, increased stimuli (i.e., noise, lights, and people) inherent in the city can cause undue stress on individuals. In response, city dwellers adapt by withdrawing from interactions. What little interactions they do have are rational and unemotional and only serve as a means to and end. The avoidance of any interpersonal relations leads to fewer and fewer interactions and weakened network and kinship ties until the individual is alone and with out any support systems; all precursors to deteriorating social, mental and physical health.

The second theory of urbanism Fischer presents is compositional theory, which is specific to the people. Founding theorists Herbert Gans and Oscar Lewis posit that rather than the ecological environment, such as size and density, nonecological characteristics, such as class, ethnicity, family structure, diminish social and psychological health. Ecological impacts are regarded when they indirectly alter the social composition. For instance, redrawing district maps so that a disproportionate of lower class citizens now inhabit the same zone could have consequence for the amount of resources available to them, thereby leaving people unprotected, vulnerable, and possibly isolated.

Fischer’s subcultural theory, the final theory in urbanism discussed here, posits that the phenomena of critical mass characteristic in urban society can give rise to new subcultures. Similar to compositional theory, subcultural theory promotes the idea that urbanism strengthens social life rather than destroying it. Strong social ties persist, in spite of urbanism, and actually flourish into new and diverse subcultures. In fact, subcultures typically cannot survive anywhere other than a large urban city as a subculture requires a large enough interest base. However, subcultural theory argues that contact between different subcultures can cause friction and ignite social disorder. Again, like compositional theory, social disorder is not directly created by urbanism, but instead by proxy.

I can find credence in compositional theory thought; spatially determined structures would probably have very little bearing on your social and mental health status if you had sufficient money to sustain you and your happy family and were not a subjugated member of society. While remembering Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, I wonder how anyone living in an industrialized American city in the early 20th century could have a healthy psyche, but Jurgis’ urban mileu had little to do with the size and density and more to do with ethnicity, power and class.

Barry Wellman and Barry Leighton: “Networks, Neighborhoods, and Communities”

Similar to Wirth’s work in defining urbanism, Wellman and Leighton set forth their notion that there are three key variables when defining communities: networks of interpersonal ties; common locality; and solidarity sentiments. When defining a community, sociologists are not primarily concerned with geographic boundaries such as those that define districts and neighborhoods. Instead, urban sociologists are more concerned with social structures that impact members of a community, specifically, post-industrial bureaucratic structures and systems that have transformed the way in which individuals associate with others. This is referred to as the community question.

The text outlined three different arguments that explain the way in which urban communities are transformed by urbanization and structural changes that accompanied it, and they way it reshaped community membership and network ties. The first argument, community lost, is, well, to put it bluntly, sounds dismal. The authors state this type of community diminishes the amount of ties as well as weakens any ties available, and makes it difficult for members to receive assistance. This reminds me of Wirth’s deterministic theory in that when members are isolated and separated from networks and communities, they feel unsupported and alienated. Since these communities are believed to lack social control, bureaucrats step in and implement policies of social control for the presumed ne’er do wells, rather than address the structural issues facing the community.

The second, community saved, is representative of strong networks and ties. Unlike, community lost, saved communities maintain in spite of bureaucratic institutions in that these communities continue to provide strong neighborhood ties and support for its members. These members are heavily involved usually in a single community where relationships are extensive but closed to other members. These characteristics are theorized to lend themselves to self-regulating communities that can provide support to its members, thus mediating member’s interaction with larger social institutions.

The third, and final community argument is that of the liberated argument. These communities experience weakened communities similar to the lost argument, but still maintain useful primary ties as demonstrated in the saved argument. As the label implies, these communities are liberated in the sense that members are “free” to develop ties with outside networks. Although they become limited members of many networks, they develop ramified networks, which in turn open their world up to additional resources outside of their primary community. They create many diverse relationships with unlikely people increasing the likelihood that they could acquire things or get things done in fewer steps; “hop-skip people” as Jane Jacobs labeled them.

While reading this, I found myself comparing bureaucracy and rational relationships to a sickness. It is echoed over and over again that communities and people need to be protected and healed from the bureaucratic institutions that have crept in since urbanization in the industrialized West. Wellman and Leighton speak of “structural salve” and “antidotes” to fix urban neighborhoods and networks. I wonder how these structures have continued for so long if their effects are negatively impacting communities.