Okay, so you read the last post here, on the idiocy of the functional zoning laws that grip almost all American cities, and you said: “This guy is really with it – Jane Jacobs was saying more or less the same thing almost 50 years ago.” True. 1961, to be precise.
Urban cyclist Jane Jacobs.
Jacobs called for a close-grained city of diversity in uses, forms, shapes, peoples, economies. She argued for density. She pled for walkability and easy access to all of the resources any community needs to assure a good life for its citizens. She understood cities as critical economic engines. She even warned us, in her last work, that there were dark days ahead for a self destructive and increasingly superficial culture. And here we are.
There is plenty to quibble about in her writings, but she did get it mostly right. Over and over and over.
And still we live and work in cities that are less equipped to sustain us than the city she inhabited 50 years ago. Since then, we’ve built loopy beltways around our cities, giant and now empty shopping malls, horrific public housing, atomized suburbs: at bottom, everything we could do to wreck our cities we have completed. Mission accomplished.
Rochester, NY’s Inner Loop.
Now cities are extremely complex organisms, filled with as many ambitions as souls. And clearly, not all ambitions are good ones. So we realize that some form of legal instrument may be necessary to lead the way to creating richly textured, durable, sustainable communities. Whatever that instrument may be, it is not a zoning ordinance.
In a near perfect example of unintended consequence, we made zoning ordinances to end squalor and disease and overcrowding, and ended up with a gigantic, wasteful, expensive, unusable urban mess.
So what do we replace zoning with? Good question. These days we have endless layers of bureaucracy overseeing the building of our cities. And still our cities don’t work.
From the cheesy and horrific addition one of our neighbors put on their unsuspecting Capitol Hill rowhouse across the alley, to the billions spent on a spaghetti bowl of an interstate interchange just south of the city, and in cities across the nation, zoning is not a tool for sanity in urbanism. Never has been. Look around.
As I have been thinking about life after zoning, I have found myself reflecting on Chicagoan Charles Wacker. In 1909 Wacker was the first Chairman of the Chicago Plan Commission, a position he held for 17 years. Wacker was a beer baron, and a member of the Board of the 1893 Columbian Exposition. His charge: build the Burnham and Bennett 1909 Plan of Chicago.
Now Wacker was a pretty smart guy. He realized that building the 1909 Plan would take lots of money – taxpayer’s money. And so he, with the help of Walter Moody, published Wacker’s Manual, so that school children could be educated in urban stewardship, and would thus become willing to support, and pay for, the Plan’s improvements. The book went through many editions, the Plan was widely supported, and much of it was built before the Depression intervened.
Maybe we need a new Wacker’s Manual more than we need zoning. Maybe we need to reteach ourselves, and our children, what our cities could be, and must be, in order to sustain the best life now and in the future.
We could start by simply rereading a little book called “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” by a far-thinking woman named Jane Jacobs. Go to your bookshelf now, pull out your old and well worn copy of this amazing book, and read it again. Aloud if you like. With your neighbors.
Better than reading your local zoning ordinance.