John Sewell on ‘The uses of city neighborhoods’ and the importance of city districts

Too many of us are sentimental about the idea of a neighbourhood – that’s Jane Jacobs’ claim in the first paragraph of this chapter. Worse than that, too many of us are sentimental about what Jane thought about the importance of small neighbourhoods.

The common knowledge is that Jane put small neighbourhoods on a pedestal and wanted to ensure that no regional interests impinged on neighbourhood interests, and because of that she was unable to support regional infrastructure. What nonsense.

As this chapter makes clear, she thinks there are three kinds of neighbourhoods: one based on the street; another on the district; the third on the city. Size is almost irrelevant – she dismisses the `ideal’ or `planned neighbourhood’ approach espoused by too many planners – since the key issues are about connections and power. Each of the three kinds of neighbourhoods needs connections (both up the ladder and down) if they are to exercise the kinds of power they need to be successful.

And of the three, she spends most of her energy writing about the district neighbourhood. She writes, “The chief function of a successful district is to mediate between the indispensable, but inherently politically powerless, street neighbourhoods, and the inherently powerful city as a whole.”

One function of a successful district neighbourhood is to bring together people who have a terrific set of contacts, a good rolodex as they used to say. You call someone at the district to help address a street problem (Jane uses the example of drugs, something that’s too big to be resolved on the very local level), and that person puts you in contact with someone who can be your ally in getting action. Good working relationships are critical to a successful city. When this happens, these individuals then find they are called on by people in other districts and other street neighbourhoods, and that makes for a healthy city.

Photo of social networking exercise by Flickr user christophercarfi

“These networks are a city’s irreplaceable social capital,” she writes, they are the lubrication for a well-functioning city. Those leaders who disparage these networks harm the city’s ability to govern itself well, something we knew all too well during the fight against Mike Harris and the megacity in Toronto in 1996, and are now paying for with the current administration at city hall.

The best street neighbourhoods have no beginnings or endings (no distinct boundaries), but overlap and interweave with others. To justify themselves, districts must have a panoply of interesting and distinct street neighbourhoods, entities which may on their own be too small to exercise real power, but ones that can attract the support of district leaders to resolve problems.

When it comes to neighbourhood planning, Jane sets three tasks: foster lively and interesting streets; create a continuous network of such streets throughout the district; use parks, squares and public buildings to create a complex and interlayered fabric within the district. Successfully accomplish these three tasks, she says, and you’ll have an interesting district.

What surprised me in the re-reading of this chapter is the value Jane puts on the district as the important neighbourhood, arguing that it’s the successful districts which become attractive – Boston’s North End; Chicago’s Back-of-the-Yards; New York’s Greenwich Village; or New York’s Lower East Side, which in 1961 she called `struggling’ although most everyone would agree that today it is a success.

She might better have titled this chapter `The importance of city districts in enhancing street neighbourhoods’ – a long title, granted, but it would have clearly defined her thoughts and helped to avoid the sentimental small neighbourhood trap in which too many have attempted to pigeon-hole her in recent years.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. John, I agree that her thoughts on the power of districts in city politics is really the crux of this chapter. I wonder how Toronto’s districts are able to empower our local neighbourhoods. I suppose the Wards are supposed to work that way, but they seem like a different animal than what she’s referring to here.

    Perhaps a better example is Code Blue, a coalition of residents associations and other organizations that came together last autumn to fight for the waterfront. They were surprisingly effective, and I think a lot of that power came from their unity across neighbourhoods.

  2. John Sewell says:

    The forums in Toronto that are similar to the distrcist Jaen talskl abotu are the six municipalities which were destrolyed when Premie Mike Harris forcibly amalgated them in 1997-8. It was to those local councils which one went to find allies to protect lcola interests. They worked very well – which is why Harris got rid of them. Code Blue was a on-e-off alliance for a specific issue.
    John Sewell.

  3. John Sewell says:

    Sorry for the typos inther posted message.The forums in Toronto that are similar to the districts Jane talks about are the six municipalities which were destroyed when Premier Mike Harris forcibly amalgated them in 1997-8. It was to those local councils which one went to find allies to protect local interests. They worked very well – which is why Harris got rid of them. Code Blue was a on-e-off alliance for a specific issue.
    John Sewell.

  4. Ben Smith says:

    I’m currently reading this book for a summer read, and I’ll admit I always thought she was a proponent for local neighbourhoods of distinct mixes of urban form and people. At the beginning of this chapter, I was shocked on her take of neighbourhoods, so shocked that I discovered this page through a Google search. But as I continued to read the chapter, I had a better understanding of where she was coming from.

    I would argue that what she refers to as districts would be what is thought to be larger neighbourhoods in Toronto. If North York, Scarborough, etc. were districts, then she would have referred to districts as being Brooklyn, Queens, etc. in her book. In fact, she even mentions that districts should be about a square mile to 1.5×1.5 miles square, far larger than the former municipalities of Metropolitan Toronto.

    From what I understand, districts would be a place like Downtown West. Street neighbourhoods would be built along the local social networks among the neighbours, while places Chinatown, the Entertainment District, West Queen West, and Kensington simply make up the diversity of this district. Meanwhile the university and the fewer cross streets north of college help to identify this neighbourhood differently from the Annex.

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