“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?
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.