Gillian Mason on ‘The need for small blocks’ – What about the post-war suburbs?

The need for small blocks is inextricably linked with the three other conditions, mixed use, aged buildings and concentration, identified by Jacobs as indispensible to generate a city’s diversity. The necessity of these conditions in combination, we are told, is the book’s most crucial lesson. Most of us are able to conjure up from memory some city district approximating this ideal: busyness, detail and richness to draw and keep the eye, a defined sense of space, and the sense that something is waiting to be discovered all come to mind. The area has a very special feeling and we immediately know that this is a place that “works”. Because the experience is both humane and uplifting we actively look for opportunities to shop, stroll, linger or perhaps live in the area. In chapters 8–11, Jacobs analyzes the diverse city districts we all know well and describes in precise terms how form contributes to the vitality of such places.

What exactly does Jane Jacobs say in this short chapter? Short blocks, Jacobs argues, provide alternatives for travel and encourage mixing and mingling on city streets. They break down the social isolation observed on streets of inordinate length and reinforce economic vitality by permitting a greater cross-section of people to access stores and services. Long blocks, in fact, work against the natural advantage of the city as a ready and potential market for goods and services by restricting greater access. In a series of simple and effective sketches, Jacobs demonstrates how short blocks permit alternative travel routes and encourage diversity.

The planning profession (as it was then) is singled out in the chapter for perpetuating the error of long blocks in redevelopment projects and for not fully understanding the role of streets in creating diversity. Specifically, she noted that promenades and malls included within super-block projects can be essentially “meaningless” if they provide no real alternative travel route. In addition, planning orthodoxy came under attack for reinforcing the myth that plentiful city streets are “wasteful” by subtracting from the sylvan landscape planners hoped to achieve in the outer rings of by-gone planning models.

In my own experience, walking in London and Paris, I have had wonderful experiences of short blocks. Turning corners, whole new worlds: long vistas; jogs, doglegs and sinuosity; unexpected landmarks; exuberant architecture, variation in the widths of streets; sidewalk bustle, etc., would open up to me. Whether planned or not, the centuries of building and rebuilding have bestowed on these cities a template for diversity, variation and surprise not found in cities hewing to a more recent, rigid design.

As I said in reviewing Chapter 3 regarding sidewalk life and contact, although I believe Jacobs is largely correct in her prescription for a vibrant city, her description of short blocks was very much a product of time and place. Since this book was written, Toronto has tended to build medium-length blocks: not as long as the super-blocks she describes, yet not quite short enough to give us a variety of routes from one place to the next. Thus, given the legacy of the last 70 years of automobile-focused urban development, we are left with the same imponderable question: How do we make the shift from our community’s current urban form to a denser and more diverse form of city? In places where the short block is difficult to add to the urban fabric, are there alternatives that would produce similar results?

Markham, Ontario by Flickr user Antoine Belaieff

For me, part of the answer must lie in adopting her method of enquiry as we address our current challenges. To a professional planner of the time steeped in theory and conventional wisdom, Jacob’s book was an alternative to the overreliance on the gathering and analysis of “hard” data. Here was someone who arrived at conclusions based on careful and patient observation of neighbourhoods and what worked and why. She was truly an astute observer, attuned to human needs, and able to see past the necessary jumble and disorder of cities. Along with her sometime antagonist Lewis Mumford, she was a pioneer in accumulating knowledge in this way and effectively communicating what she observed.

In our own time, her example offers inspiration for a way forward. In the developed suburbs, for example, incremental and fluctuant change can be shaped for the better by community leaders and citizens attuned to opportunities and possibilities and themselves astute and educated observers. A group of citizens agitating for any improvement (such as a local market, or even a short block) based on a thoughtful and human-scale rationale is worth a thousand professional charrettes or planner’s reports. If this is tied to a community vision and an active and on-going involvement in community affairs, so much the better.

Jacobs observed that “if city mixtures of use are to be more than fiction on maps, they must result in different people, bent on different purposes, appearing at different times, but using the same streets” (Jacobs’ italics). Short blocks like busy sidewalks contribute much to urban life and vivacity and are obviously worth pursuing. Where such opportunities are not readily available, perhaps we can borrow Jacob’s “eyes” to see other opportunities. How can we engage community to determine where street connections are needed? How can be more responsive to invisible demand for short cuts so that we can turn them into official streets or paths? Happily, I can report that the planning profession is now much more attuned to the considerations addressed in this book.

At the Centre for City Ecology, our principal aim is to help people become astute and educated observers of the urban scene in order to allow them to become involved in the betterment of their city.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s funny that you mention Paris, given the marks that Haussmann left on its landscape. It seems like there’s potentially much that we could learn from the legacy of the Haussmannization of Paris. It was an incredibly top-down, destructive process intended to emphasize views down the street, rather than the intricate, immediate view of the uses right in front of us. And yet you’re absolutely right, Gillian; it is diverse, surprising, walkable, and livable. It feels like it works.

    Maybe Haussmann got lucky, pairing his almost Modernist ambitions of bringing order to the city with many of the tenets that Jacobs describes in this book, or maybe he truly knew what he was doing, but to me, old Paris gives me hope that other comprehensively master-planned neighbourhoods might sprout some healthy vitality as well.

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