The Mixed Legacy of Jane Jacobs

Ed Glaeser, taking a break from writing things about high-speed rail that make me mad, has a pretty great book review in the New Republic that expresses ambivalent feelings about Jane Jacobs and her legacy that I share:

Jacobs did help to make public decisions more accountable, which is an incontrovertibly good thing. There is little to like in arbitrary public power — but at this point the pendulum has swung too far. Today it often feels as if every neighbor has veto rights over every new project, public or private. When Jacobs’s heirs argue for limits on eminent domain and expensive boondoggle projects, I stand with them. When they impose more and more restrictions on private owners building on their own land, I shake my head. Jacobs herself did not oppose only highways and urban renewal, but also far more benign private projects such as NYU’s library. Education is crucial to urban success. Surely a twelve-story university library would not have hurt Greenwich Village. […]

The Death and Life of Great American Cities argues that at least one hundred homes per acre are necessary to support exciting stores and restaurants, but that two hundred homes per acre is a “danger mark.” After that point of roughly six-story buildings, Jacobs thought that neighborhoods risked sterile standardization. (The one public housing project that Jacobs blessed, at least initially, had only five stories.) But keeping great cities low means that far too few people can enjoy the benefits of city life. Jacobs herself had the strange idea that preventing new construction would keep cities affordable, but a single course in economics would have taught her the fallacy of that view. If booming demand collides against restricted supply, then prices will rise.

The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.


The key fact here (interestingly, a fact Glaeser seemed determined to ignore during his HSR analysis) is that the overall rate at which a metro area’s population grows has relatively little to do with land use decisions in any one neighborhood or municipality. If existing cities in a growing metro area don’t get denser, then the metro area just winds up getting sprawlier and the existing good neighborhoods wind up getting increasingly unaffordable. It’s understandable that incumbent homeowners in an already great neighborhood often take an “I’ve already got mine” attitude toward further development, but it’s also regrettable and not something to be encouraged.