Mary Rowe on ‘The generators of diversity’

“The diversity, of whatever kind, that is generated by cities rests on the fact that in cities so many people are so close together, and among them contain so many different tastes, skills, needs, supplies, and bees in their bonnets.” (page 147, Vintage edition).

I doubt that the word diversity was as hackneyed a term when Jacobs wrote it as it has become today. It’s become a “buzzword” for every kind of corporate initiative to institute more equitable racial, ethnic, and gender representation in the workplace. But I think Jacobs is using it in a much broader way, to describe what naturally occurs when a lot of people, with their varying habits and viewpoints, settle in close proximity: all sorts of creative stuff happens. How does a city make room for that kind of diversity?

Photo by Neil Howard

So much of planning – of development – has had a deadening effect on this occurring naturally. Jacobs cites public housing “projects” and “civic centers” as physical uses that crowd out the smaller, inventive kinds of things that people will dream up if they can afford smaller spaces. Stadiums, university campuses, hospital buildings can all have this same impact—their use is too static, too uniform, too monolithic. Yet we know large cities will continue to attract those kinds of investments. Can diversities of all kinds: people, buildings, land uses, styles, enterprises, activities be cultivated, along with the “mega-projects”? Manufactured diversity feels phony; this is one of the complaints of town plans put together by “new urbanists.” Those communities don’t feel like anything has naturally occurred, because they’re following a formulaic “pattern book.” In her promotion of it, Jacobs resists dictating what diversity should look like. Instead, she proposes there are four conditions that, in combination, will help it along.

An urban area needs to have:

  • more than one primary use (at least two);
  • lots of streets and turning corners, which short blocks make possible;
  • different ages and conditions of buildings with varying economic yield potential; and
  • lotsa people in and out of the place, some probably living there.

In subsequent chapters she lays each of these out in more detail.

Now, alas, some of the prescribers among us have wanted to take those four ideas and state them as the Jacobs Law. They then set out to advance all sorts of rules and schemes to make it so. My instincts are counter to this: better that we start by finding ways to strip away the impediments to the natural occurrence of these conditions.

Ten years ago I bought a home in a Toronto neighborhood on the eastern edge of downtown, just outside the expressway that bifurcates the city from north to south, whisking people from Lake Ontario at the south to points north. My house was a semi-detached working-(wo)man’s Victorian (not as grand as some nearby neighborhoods’ housing stock). A few years later I exchanged that for an infill condominium that an enterprising builder was adding on to a back laneway nearby. This neighborhood is also home to social housing, an elementary school, a women’s shelter, several high end restaurants, a body shop, a community centre, a concert hall (that attracts oft-pierced young people), variety stores, a bakery – three actually – one of which is a high-volume production facility (what we used to call a ‘factory’), a public library, a strip club (that attracts not-so-young people, I think), a playing field, some art galleries, a chiropractor, several coffee shops, a computer store, a pawn shop, some higher end furniture stores, a sushi place, a cabinet-maker, some breakfast diners that become modest watering holes for some of the longest tenured residents, a hardware store, a methadone clinic, an extended care facility, a butcher, stairs down to the hiking/bike trail, a church, and a beautiful old bank building that now houses a fashion designer. (Don’t you want to live there?) The streets are busy, with a variety of people, all the time. It’s a Jacobs neighborhood. It wasn’t always, but has become so. Will it remain? Rumours have begun that one of the oldest restaurants, which serves a city-wide clientele, has been evicted, to make room for ….? More later on what may keep my beloved neighborhood from becoming too successful, leading to it losing many of the attributes that make it so appealing now. But what continues to make it so appealing is its diversity. And it complies with all four of Jacobs’ recommended conditions. There are lots of cross streets, the blocks are short, the street-fronts are narrow, there are back laneways and alleys where people have built sheds and garages for vehicle storage, gardening, and general tinkering.

As my neighborhood is diverse, so too is East York, the former municipality of which my ’hood was a part, which amalgamated into the City of Toronto 15 years ago. It includes a wide variety of neighborhoods that differ in housing stocks, ethnicity, culture, and race, topography, and primary uses. And similarly the city as a whole reflects the same rich range of choices. Diversity in cities is a fractal: it repeats at varying scales (block, neighborhood, district, city). Toronto illustrates this beautifully, as does the region in which the city is located. Diversity breeds more of itself.


Finally, I want to plug the larger significance for me of Jacobs’ celebration of city diversity. Steven Johnson is an American non-fiction writer who, in my opinion, is one of the best interpreters of Jacobs’ larger ideas. Steven has written almost a dozen books, including about ten years ago Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. His summary of Jacobs’ analysis of cities – and how it reflects the same patterns of self-organization that we see in nature and networks – is instructive and poetic. He’s gone on to write several other books, and they each reinforce those patterns of connection and self-organization that he spotted in Jacobs’. His most recent is Where Good Ideas Come From, in which he refers to a concept coined by scientist Stuart Kauffman, of “the adjacent possible.” Kauffman is one of the early codifiers of complex systems thinking with self-organization as the dominant principle. (More to come on Kauffman later when we reach the last chapter of Death and Life, about which I am eager to post). Johnson latches on to “the adjacent possible” to describe how innovation takes place, where “new ideas” come from. They aren’t conjured up remotely, pulled out of thin air. In fact, as he and Kaufmann argue, they are arrived at by cobbling, recombining nearby inputs, mixing different kinds of resources that are at hand, trying something new through improvisation. Johnson reiterates that this is what city diversity is about: bricolage. This is why city diversity matters: and whether it be rules or racism that inhibits it, when cities are enabled to encourage and nurture diversities in all their forms, they are able to be the great incubators of creativity and wealth and better ideas.

There are many references worth looking at, but start here with an interview essay Johnson penned in the Wall Street Journal, The Genius of the Tinkerer.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. I love your list of the various activities in your neighbourhood! It really makes this concept come alive.

    My own neighbourhood also has a variety of people and uses at all times of day, but I’m still mourning the closure of more and more of our independent bookstores and smaller shops. I’ll have to think about why we can’t seem to support them when smaller cities like Peterborough support them quite successfully. We have short blocks, concentration, old and new buildings, and mixed primary uses, but… part of it must be the book industry itself, and perhaps the way property taxes are going up, up, up (in harmony with the condo towers going up, up, up!).

    Shall we add ‘Where Good Ideas Come From’ to our list of suggestions for future selections for the book club?

  2. Civic diversity can be thought of as civic diversification, in the sense of a finacial portfolio.

    Diversification gained hold in investing because in the financial world, it’s been observed that different industries and sectors grow at different rates and different market conditions. Young and small companies can grow at fast rates, mature and large companies grow slower but offer a constant profit stream and lower volatility. Over the long run, a diversified portfolio can offer the smoothest, consistent gains.

    The same would apply for cities. Jacobs, in her great city economics treatises, pointed out that a diversified economic base is needed for a dynamic city region.

    She used the examples of Manchester and Birmingham in England to illustrate the differences in fortunes, although since the time of her writing the UK has regressed economically to where London is a primate city and most other cities are faded. Manchester was big and monolithic, Birmingham was small and diversified. Birmingham ended up carrying the day.

    It’s a diversified collection of businesses that helps give neighborhoods and cities their vitality. This is also the a-ha! moment of the book where Jacobs trains our eyes to see an example of success that was in front of us all the time but lost on us.

  3. I LOVE Steven Johnson’s Emergence. Oddly enough, I actually read it years before I was ever formally introduced to Jacobs, and it very much coloured my perception of D&L when I first read it. My personal “a-ha!” moment actually came in the last chapter of D&L, where both ideas explicitly came together. If I were teaching Jacobs, I think I would probably make kids read Jacobs’ introduction to the reissue of D&L, followed by “The Kind of Problem a City Is” before anything else. Seeing the city through those eyes is more important than any specific tenets, in my opinion.

    As a side note, I first read Emergence when I was studying the 4chan online community, and how their small but incredibly prolific subculture manages to influence pop culture on a massive scale. Literally, almost any internet meme that you run across on the probably originated in this one imageboard. One of their memes (the ever-annoying Rickroll) even managed to find its way into the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. They manage to be so influential by employing much the same self-organizing principles as evolution, voice recognition technologies, or cities, but with the interesting caveat that their products develop like a subspecies, isolated from its parent species on an island. They take mountains of pop culture material from the mainland, then in their island community, they reconstitute it through improvisation, refine it through a rigorous yet ad hoc adjudication process (a.k.a. “flaming”), and then release their strange divergent species back onto the mainland of pop culture, where the original and the mutant memes co-exist, confusingly containing the same content but two different meanings (e.g. Rickrolling vs. Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up”). Most memes don’t make it big like this, but because there are so many and each one is so different, a handful manage to get a foothold.

  4. I’m joining this conversation a little late, because I just found out about it. But I want to underline and put asterisks around your point about “manufacturing diversity,” as in New Urbanism. Builders of high rises and New Urbanists often claim or infer that Jacobs would approve of their developments, because they mix land uses and increase densities.

    Not only are these developments about as diverse as pablum, they also illustrate the importance of Jacobs’ warnings about scale. Cataclysmic money, as she calls it in a later chapter, builds clusters of high rises and phony neighbourhoods all at once. They are a barrier to genuine urban vitality because they have not been grown organically.

  5. Aaron Priven says:

    “Growing organically” isn’t literally true, though. It’s a metaphor, meaning that the neighborhood grows and changes over time.

    Tearing down an existing neighborhood and trying to build a new one on the spot, as so many urban renewal projects have tried to do, is a tragedy. But truly new neighborhoods — on formerly industrial or agricultural land — have always been built up pretty much at once, and then became more diverse over time. The question for those is whether, in the next decades, that sort of development will allow for the “organic” growth and change of uses and users over time, or whether it tends to freeze it in place. New Urbanist development is generally better at that than more conventional development, but there are lots of details that matter, too.

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