Steven Dale on ‘Some myths about diversity’ – Two Simple Rules

Unsurprisingly, Jane Jacobs does not approve of junkyards as a tool to promote diversity. Her feelings about Junkyard Dogs, however, remain uncertain. CC image by flickr user waltarrrrr.

If you’ve made it this far along with us, congratulations; because this is a big, long book that can certainly intimidate a person.

As we reach the end of section 2, there’s a good chance some of you have reached a point where you find yourself thinking so what can we do about it? only to be confronted with whatever the written word equivalent of silence is.  

Jacobs is so exhaustive in D&L at cataloguing the problems of contemporary North American city-building, that one can be forgiven for feeling utterly overwhelmed and helpless.

It’s one of the criticisms I’ve often seen levied at D&L – that the book is long on problems and short on solutions. And it’s a fair enough argument. Jacobs is masterful at spotting problems of the urban form but is almost mute when it comes to implementing policies that would allow us to realize the ideal urban environments she speaks of.

We’re never (at least thus far) shown a light at the end of the tunnel. Instead, the list of problems continuously builds, unrelentingly, with nary a whisper of hope in sight. Our parks are wrong. We don’t have old enough buildings. We don’t have short enough blocks. We aren’t diverse enough. We aren’t mixed enough. Etc.

Again, we’re left as an audience feeling helpless – so what can we do about it?

Whether you agree with that criticism or not is largely dependent upon the degree to which you agree with that old shop-worn MBA school cliché it isn’t a problem unless you have a solution. I tend to feel that it’s a legitimate criticism, but not to the extent that it invalidates the prescience of her observations.

I will, however, admit that as we’re now roughly halfway through the book, I’ve myself wishing D&L was a little more proactive in the solutions department – which is why Chapter 12 was so important for me.

While she doesn’t do it explicitly, Jacobs lays out in no uncertain terms how any given city’s zoning by-laws should be structured. And it’s beautifully simple. In essence, Jacobs recommends an inclusive zoning by-law system that allows (virtually) any activity that is or does not include:

  • reeking smokestacks and flying ash;
  • parking lots;
  • junkyards;
  • large or heavy trucking depots;
  • gas stations;
  • gigantic outdoor advertising;
  • or any use that is not of a comparable scale with to the surrounding uses.

Don’t get too hung up on the list because the list is somewhat irrelevant. Jacobs herself even goes so far as to admit that some gigantic outdoor advertising has a crucial role in a living urban fabric. The basic idea here is that rather than prohibiting specific uses, Jacobs advocates prohibiting features of uses that would have a detrimental impact on surrounding businesses and people. Notwithstanding obvious problem uses such as junkyards and used car lots, rather than worrying about the specific use, she worries about the scale of the usage.

You want to build a tiny manufacturing facility in your back yard a mid-density residential neighbourhood? No problem. You want to build a 400 person facility with smokestacks? Not on your life.

You want to open an office in your shed? Go for it. You want to erect an 8 storey office building in the middle of a residential zone? Yeah, right.

Jacobs basically takes a come one, come all approach here when she says “I doubt that there is any legal economic use (and few illegal ones) which can harm a city district as much as lack of abundant diversity harms it.” She takes a reductionist approach and permits all uses (within reason) until a proposed use demonstrate that its scale or features render itself to be irreconcilable to the surrounding district. That’s the exact opposite of our current regime which tends to state only what is permitted in a district and forces people to ask for permission to do things that aren’t permitted. It’s a subtle difference but an important one.

A thought experiment:

You’re considering buying, renting or leasing residential space in the city of your choice. You can only afford to live in one of two districts and both are basically equivalents to each other in the ways most people care about; service levels of transit, parks, crime rates and schools are basically identical in both.

However . . .

In District A, any use is permitted so long as it obeys two very simple rules. First, the usage must be of a roughly equivalent scale to the surrounding district. Second, the usage must not produce any pollutants (whether noise or particulate) that could compromise people’s enjoyment of the neighbourhood. Junkyards, used car lots and the like are also not permitted.

In District B, meanwhile, the only permitted use is residential. Commercial activities are prohibited except in a single area dominated by chain-stores. Exceptions are occasionally allowed, but only after one goes through the necessary (not to mention long and expensive) permitting process. There is, however, no guarantee that an individual who wishes to go through such a permitting process will be successful in their application.

Maybe you want to start a small business, or open an art studio, or run a pop-up BBQ restaurant out of your backyard, or create and sell hand-rolled cigars out of an abandoned cellar in your basement, or host paid private viewings of and subsequent lectures on the best Woody Allen films (I’m partial to Manhattan and Match Point, myself), or run a licensed psychotherapy office out of the back room of your house, or run an underground community of board game enthusiasts who only meet after dark, or give macrame lessons to orphans, or whatever-you-want-whenever-you-want-without-having-to-ask-permission.

If that was you, which district would you choose? Me, too. More than likely so would most other people, thereby leading to a virtuous circle of diverse uses and users attracting and accommodating other diverse uses and users. Over time, you’ve got yourself a viable, exciting, coveted nabe on your hands.

See, the thing about diversity is this: It’s natural and it happens pretty easily. Like life, diversity tends to find a way and flourishes when you leave it to its own devices.

Ironically, the way to encourage diversity is to leave it the hell alone.

Random Thoughts

  • Extra Credit Question 1. There is still one issue that makes Jacobs’ simple, inclusive zoning ideal very difficult to implement. What is it?
  • Extra Credit Question 2. There’s so many great lines in this chapter, name one. (My favourite: Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.)
  • Extra Credit Question 3. Which is more suited to generating diversity; a condominium or office tower. Why?
  • Extra Credit Question 4. Jacobs implies in Chapter 12 how certain “huge outdoor advertising” actually contributes to the urban realm rather than detracts from it. How and why does that happen with some advertisements and not others? What about this one:
Extra Credit Question 5: Tio Pepe, anyone?

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Here’s a stab at the extra credit:
    1) Big uses are economically useful and will exist – but where do you put them? If they’re not interspersed with neighborhoods, then people will have long commutes, require more traffic insfrastructure, etc.
    Creating the necessary preconditions for diversity doesn’t mean diversity will happen. There can be other cultural, social, or economic factors that inhibit it, regardless of how accommodating the zoning is.
    2) (I don’t have the book handy)
    3) An office tower – it brings different types of people from different areas together in one place and creates demand for a variety of services. A big condo tower is usually a lot of the same kind of units, the same socioeconomic group, etc. The occupants will be much more similar than the tenants of an office building.
    4) It can give a distinctive look and identity to an area. Also brightly lit advertisements can light up areas at night to make them seem more alive and safer.

  2. Steven Dale says:

    Here are my answers:

    1. Complex policy, segregation and regulation is a big business that employs a lot of people. The people who make their money from complex policy won’t like to see it go away.

    3. Agreed, office tower. Though the way I see it is this: An office tower provides flexible space adaptable to any needs. A 600 square foot condo is a 600 square foot condo – nothing more.

    4. I honestly don’t know – I’m wondering why some ads wind up becoming landmarks and others as annoyances.

  3. Extra Credit Question 4:

    To be honest, I actually question her initial hatred for major outdoor advertising in the first place. It seems like one of the few moments in D&L when Jacobs makes a claim based more on her gut or her own taste than economic logic. In L.A., many a successful small-scale, diverse commercial development relies on billboard signage on their roofs to stay afloat.

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