The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects by Lewis Mumford (Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1961). hb, 576 pp.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (Vintage, 1961). pb, 448 pp.

The City in History treats of the history of cities, from paleolithic villages to our sprawling "greater metropolitan areas", projects what we might do with our cities in the future, and proposes some things Mr. Mumford thinks we ought to do. With such a huge scope, of course some periods and places get more focused treatment than others. The main foci of attention are ancient Mesopotamia, then classical Greece and Rome, medieval and renaissance Europe, and both America and Europe in modern times. Mr. Mumford says in the preface, "I have confined myself as far as possible to cities and regions I am acquainted with at first hand".

One of Mr. Mumford's main theses is that cities were "invented" by despotic rulers, but that the people brought close together by royal decree gradually found other and better reasons to live in large numbers and close proximity. Most of the historical functions of the city were originally a royal or priestly monopoly, physically located inside the king's citadel. Over time, trading, theater, banking, and so forth have been dispersed into private management and are scattered in many centers through a city.

Another thesis is that early flaws in city life have been perpetuated through the centuries in the founding of new cities. The Roman emperors and the later European monarchs were to the cities they founded much as the kings of Sumeria and Babylon were to theirs. In each case the popular purposes of the city were sacrificed to amplifying the king's glory - walls thicker than military technology of the time required, broad avenues for military processions, and focus on war in general. Mumford also describes the early dependence on slavery (the farmers enslaved to the city people, and the city dwellers enslaved to the king), and the persistence of habits based on this after the most blatant characteristics of slavery had been abolished. I think he primarily refers to oligarchic ownership of land and capital: the many who own no land or capital must work largely for the benefit of others, and the few who own much of either don't have to work at all.

A third thesis has to do with limits to growth. He speaks highly of the Greek cities' ability to stop growing old cities and send their excess population out to establish colonies instead, and deprecates Rome's failure to do enough on the same lines. He clearly thinks most of our large cities have grown too large to be livable - near the end of the book he frequently uses the term "congestion" to describe conditions that might less pejoratively be described as "high population density". He speaks approvingly of Ebeneezer Howard and Raymond Unwin's plans for replacing big cities with networks of small cities. He speaks with cautious approval of early suburbs (built along commuter railroad lines, spaced with rural area between them, and on a pedestrian scale) but is dismayed by suburban sprawl that makes private auto travel the only practical way to get around. He also emphasizes leaving plenty of open space (many parks, but also generally low ground coverage on each builing lot, leaving lawn & tree borders between most buildings).

I learned a lot about social history from this book - how excrements were disposed of in ancient Athens, when private bedrooms for each family member came into use, how the twisty web of streets in medieval cities was replaced by a straight grid of avenues in baroque cities and why this mostly benefited rich people, and much else besides. But I thought Mr. Mumford's prescriptions for what to do next were vitiated by a lack of attention to how families and enterprises, streets, buildings and parks interact on a small scale. That small-scale interaction is the subject of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs.

Mrs. Jacobs spent years walking around in several cities (mostly New York, Boston, and Philadelphia) and observing the way people use them. She identified four conditions that are important for vigorous city life:

  1. The uses of a street should be diverse. A mix of homes, apartments, offices, stores, etc. means different people will be in the street at different times of the day and week for different purposes. Thus people at work and home there are likely to watch the street, people walking on the street watch each other, and it is not an attractive place for crime. Thus it's an attractive site for more restaurants and the like which could get an even flow of customers throughout the day and week (instead of only workdays at lunchtime, as in monotonous office districts).
  2. Blocks should be short. Frequent street corners mean more alternate routes, and more places where people crossing paths can support stores, restaurants, library branches, etc.
  3. There should be a mix of old and new buildings. Buildings of different age rent at different prices, so are potential sites for different types of enterprise and potential homes for people of different incomes and habits.
  4. People and buildings should be concentrated. If dwellings and workplaces are too spread out, the residents and workers can't support as many small corner stores, restaurants, etc. as are viable in more concentrated areas. Also, sparse population means sparse pedestrian traffic, which means the lone pedestrian here and there may be at risk of crime which would not happen with many potential witnesses around.

Mrs. Jacobs argues, based on comparison of many neighborhoods of different densities, that a density of 100 dwellings per acre is probably necessary in most places for a vibrant city life. Dwellings at 10 per acre or fewer may be safe (though not very lively) in a suburb or small town, while densities in between those levels are usually dense enough to cause the problems (not just crime) associated with many strangers living close together, and not dense enough to solve those problems by their own synergetic vitality.

She criticizes social reformers who confuse high population density with "overcrowding". (According to some legal definition, dwellings are overcrowded if they have more than 1.5 persons per room.) She also disagrees with the emphasis given to lawn space by Lewis Mumford and his predecessors: by pushing buildings further apart, it uses central land inefficiently and contributes to sprawl. She points out that most city parks are underused, and that city areas with lower ground coverage tend to be less interesting places to live and work.

Approximately the first half of the book is dedicated to describing her theory of what makes a city neighborhood "lively" (by which she seems to mean, interesting to live or work in) and safe (from crime), and the evidence she bases it on - primarily an inductive comparison of various city neighborhoods at different times. For instance, she compares New York's West Side with Greenwich Village - similar in many respects, but the former has long blocks and the latter short blocks, and she correlates this with the difference in liveliness.

The latter part of the book describes market-driven and state-initiated processes that make districts less lively. The market-driven process she calls "self-destruction of diversity". She observed several streets, at one time having a wide variety of uses, gradually become less diverse as they became popular: developers eventually turned nearly all the space to the most profitable use. This is how downtown areas of many cities have gradually become composed of just office buildings plus a few restaurants and so forth that can survive on lunch-hour rush alone.

We're more familiar with the state-initiated destruction: abuse of eminent domain to condemn many-block areas to build housing projects, industrial parks, and civic centers. Not only is this an injustice to the tenants forced to move (typical implementation of eminent domain means paying the landlord the market value of the land, but leaving the tenants uncompensated for the losses due to forced relocation - often involving the complete destruction of small businesses that can't find another suitable site), but the resulting areas are low in density, undiverse in use, and often have long blocks, which tends to make them dull and, in off-peak hours, dangerous.

There's a lot more here than what I've described - description of how slums heal, why sidewalks are safer for children than playgrounds, the damage done by mortgage blacklisting of high-density areas falsely called "slums", and much else. I'd like to concentrate now on some of Mrs. Jacobs' specific policy proposals.

She proposes replacement of current zoning laws - to have few or no restrictions on types of land use, and much lower requirements for the proportion of open space to ground covered by buildings. Instead, to combat the tendency to "self-destruction of diversity", she proposes limits on how fast old buildings can be replaced by new buildings. (I suspect she would approve of restrictions on noisy and malodorous factories locating near anything else; but would restrict noise and bad smells, not manufacturing as such.)

Housing projects she thinks fundamentally wrong, not merely badly implemented. She approves the notion of subsidized shelter for people of low income, but in place of government-built and -managed housing projects she proposes directly subsidizing rent based on low income. As people getting rent subsidies increase their income, they would get a smaller subsidy, till they can afford the full cost of rent. Thus moderately successful people would not be forced to immediately move out of such a low-income neighborhood (as they are from public housing projects), and it could, if other conditions are good, become more diverse in income level over time. She also proposes incentives (such as guaranteed mortgages) for private developers who would build low-rent apartments in specified areas that lack residence as one of their primary uses or are too low density, and she makes proposals for salvaging existing housing projects.

She disapproves of suburban sprawl for some of the same reasons as Lewis Mumford, but her prescription for countering it is very different than his: use new development to increase population density in the central city and inner suburbs, while increasing their diversity of use (more workplaces in the suburbs and more dwellings in the office and shopping districts) so that the center becomes a more attractive place to live. Stop subsidizing use of private cars, so people will have natural incentives to live closer together.

Libertarians can readily agree to the abolition of current zoning laws, but won't be enthusiastic to embrace her idea of "zoning for diversity", restricting changes of land use so an area doesn't go all to one use or a few similar uses. I'm ambivalent about it; it could be as badly micromanaged by city and county zoning boards as our present single-use zone system. My alternate proposal: tax breaks for people who stick with old land use when neighbors change, and tax penalties for people who change their land use in imitation of neighbors - i.e., rewarding and penalizing externalities related to the similarity or difference of neighboring land use. (That would also avoid people being taxed out of their homes by rising land values, and, in rural areas, slow down suburban sprawl. Currently once a few subdivisions and shopping centers go into a rural area, land values go up and holders of fallow land or low-profit farmland are penalized in property taxes if they don't develop their land in the same way.)

Some libertarians would find her idea of rent subsidy almost as bad as housing projects (both violate libertarian principle by taxing everyone for the benefit of a few), but I think it could work well. If it's not on such a large scale as to lead to cripplingly high taxes, it would benefit some people a lot while hurting the generality only slightly. It would anyway help far more poor people with fewer tax dollars than housing projects, with few or none of the bad social effects that housing projects have had. I would ideally prefer it to be funded and managed by non-profit organizations. The St. Vincent de Paul Society does something similar already. But I can't disapprove of rent subsidies on principle. Use of taxes should be for goals generally approved by the people taxed; but if we require universal consent we can have no government at all, for anarchists won't consent to being taxed for police, courts and defense. And between 100% and 50% I can see no definite rule for how many must consent to a use of taxes before the appropriation can be just. In our society, I reckon most people - surely well over 50%, maybe more than 90% - would (do) consent to being taxed to provide some minimal safe and sanitary housing for people who would otherwise be homeless or live in unsanitary, dangerous buildings. That, to me, makes such rent subsidies just in principle. Rent subsidy would be a specialized form of the negative income tax proposed by Milton Friedman and others. I would support a negative income tax readily if it would replace, rather than adding to, the minimum wage law, welfare, Social Security, and unemployment "insurance".

This book was written at a time when ideas from the "Garden City" model for city planning, originated by Ebeneezer Howard and popularized by Lewis Mumford and others, were unquestioned by most city planners, bankers, and big real estate developers. It's apparently had considerable influence with the younger generations of architects and city planners, but the old paradigm is still the main influence on how zoning laws are made and big real estate developments (especially state-directed ones) are planned.

I can strongly recommend both The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The City in History. The former is more successful in treating of its narrower topic than the latter in its much larger topic, but both are well written and contain much nutritious food for thought.

It's interesting to note that Jane Jacobs lived for 30 years in central New York, and has lived since 1968 in a dense neighborhood of Toronto (her family moved so the sons would not be drafted). Lewis Mumford lived much of his later life in rural upstate New York. One can't fully understand what one doesn't love.

Jim Henry
Lilburn, Georgia

This first appeared in The Connection #254.

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