Mary Rowe on ‘The self-destruction of diversity’


You will recall that the neighborhood into which I bought ten years ago may be threatened by its own success. Jacobs suggests there are signs to watch out for, including what she calls “excessive duplication” – where something that has done well, generating the highest profits, is then repeated again and again, crowding out other uses and users. In lots of gentrifying downtowns we fear this: when all that is being built are high end condos and before you know it all the anomalies that made the neighborhood interesting (the pawn shops!) are forced out, because the landlords want to build condos too.

LIC NYC by dave bone

I recently moved to New York City and here, like other “world” cities, the development pressures are so extreme that city governments can’t seem to resist the tax base benefits of up-zoning, either for high-end residential or the most highly priced commercial uses. “We need Class A office space to compete with Singapore…” goes the developer’s lament. When is enough, enough? When we crowd out other forms of housing that can accommodate varying incomes and lifestyles, artists, and workers, we start to encroach upon the “adjacent possible” that fuels the vitality of the city to which we are attracted. Similarly, if the only businesses and enterprises we house are ones that can afford Class A, we’re not incubating the new, the marginal, the emergent that need the affordability – and thrive on the cobbling process of invention that most often accompanies occupying less expensive space.

Jacobs makes two very practical suggestions to stem the self-destruction. First, allow for diversity zoning. Rather than feeling compelled to make an area conform to a one-size-fits-all uniformity, adopt a more flexible approach that encourages variation. This is tricky because I would be fearful of giving the bureaucracy too much control over the fine grain of a neighborhood. And historically zoning has been a tool for segregrating uses and excluding activities, rather than integrating and  including them. But can zoning be used to encourage the evolution of diversity, so we would stop seeing one condo tower in an area lead to twenty?

Cityplace (Toronto) by James G

We no longer tolerate any other kind of use to be repeated as flagrantly as we do condos: long lines of big box stores have swung out of favour. Why then are cities — the two I have most recently lived in: Toronto and New York — seemingly only interested in high-end condo development? Is this about tax base? Or city planner laziness? We need zoning that encourages all sorts of housing types: large multi-bedoom rentals for families, small studio spaces for hipsters, grant flats for in-laws, back-lane developments for aging-not-so-hip-but–not-yet-to-be grannies like me. And we need zoning to not crowd out serendipitous uses that we haven’t even thought of yet, that people will want to use space for next. I am obviously no expert on the foibles of Euclidean zoning, but I know we have readers who are, and I look forward to your contribution to this discussion.

In Toronto another sinister part of excessive duplication, in our present day that means condo development,  is a provision to which the developer must comply: it must set aside monies to finance a community amenity (like a park). These monies are often allocated at the discretion of the local City Councillor. The New York City version of this is the creation of places called Privately Owned Public Spaces. (Zuccotti Park, home of the Occupy Wall Street movement, is perhaps now our most famous example). These methods are ways to create resources for public amenities without having to resort to taxation. The other lever Jacobs suggests to protect local diversity is the “staunchness of public buildings.” In my neighborhood’s case that would be the library and the community centre – both of which are threatened because of imminent municipal cost-cutting.

If we are serious about recognizing the benefits of diversity at every scale, city residents and their leadership need to stop ducking the need for greater tax revenues collected the old-fashioned way, so that we can support existing public buildings and spaces and the services they provide.

Finally, just a point to add about another reason Jacobs advocated for a relaxing of rules that prevented variable uses — diversity — in city spaces. One of the reasons she rejected the separation of workplaces from residential areas was because it assumed a matriarchal system of child and neighborhood care. This was the 1950s, with fewer women in the out-of-the-house labour force. But Jacobs did not accept that men were off the hook in the raising of children:

“Men are not an abstraction. They are either around in person, or they are not. Working places and commerce must be mingled right in with residences if men, like the men who work on or near Hudson street, for example are to be around city children in daily life –men who are part of normal daily life, as opposed to men who put in an occasional playground appearance while they substitute for women or imitate the occupations of women.” (page 84, Vintage)

Photo by Marielle Plomp

It would be a topic for another blog post, but surely this quotation speaks to a Jacobs’ feminism, to her inclusive instincts. (Was Jane Jacobs a feminist? I’ve been asked this before and I suspect she would not have identified as one. She might have seen that as too exclusionary, and she certainly shunned every other kind of identity label: she was a life-ist.) But you can trace a straight line from Jacobs to Hilary Clinton’s advocacy for the communal nature of child development: it takes a village — or a Hudson street — to foster child development. Another reason diversity matters.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the self-destruction of diversity is actually a problem of the market and not of exclusionary zoning. One of the examples that Jacobs uses is banks popping up on all four corners of a popular intersection. Couldn’t this same phenomenon happen regardless of the zoning? If a bank appears to be a successful economic strategy to landlords, they could just as easily allow a bank to be built there, whether the zoning is commercial-only or non-existent.

    Just throwing this out there, but couldn’t alternative forms of zoning (more open, not necessarily of uses) be an effective tactic to stem the growth of too many similar uses in a district? What if we zoned based on the relationship between property uses, rather than based on the use of each property in its own right?

    For instance, couldn’t the PlaNYC policy of a park within a ten-minute walk of all New Yorkers be applied to other uses? A ten minute walk for groceries, a hardware store, a laundromat? This might serve as a protection of fine grain commercial uses in some cases, or impetus for new commercial development in others.

  2. Matthew says:

    It strikes me that there is somewhat of a contradiction here. On the one hand, you don’t want to lose acres of city diversity to redevelopment. On the other hand, restricting building size and growth is one way to ensure skyrocketing rents. We have a lot of restrictions on development within cities these days and exponential growth in rental expense seems to be the main result. I think that her ultimate conclusion is best said: supply of vital districts must be in a saner relationship with demand.

    Perhaps there is a game theoretic argument to be made here, in the form of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If adopting a strategy of diversity provides two developers $4 million revenue each, that is one possibility. But then if one developer makes $5 million by building a massive bloc of condos instead, and the other loses so much business they are reduced to $1 million, that is unstable. So the other developer might respond by redeveloping into a bloc of condos too – but now both developers only make $2 million due to competition and lost diversity. It is not optimal, but, however, a Nash Equilibrium. Anyway, just speculating…

    1. Nice use of game theory there! One might also think of the Tragedy of the Commons, if one thinks of city diversity as the shared resource. The individual economic decisions of developers are at odds with the collective economic resources, and this eventually leads to the depletion of individual wealth as well, as this common source dries up.

  3. Mary W. Rowe says:

    Wow gentlemen such thoughtful comments. I am not that keen on more rules or constraints to ‘force’ diversity. I am wary about that, I just don’t see how it would work and worry about anyone deciding what’s good for a neighborhood (“too many vegan restaurants…”) But what about policies or incentives that support small, new ideas? If there is sufficient densities, then we know there’ll be varying demands for all sorts of uses and things, and then the diversity happens in response to that?

    Matt: re all the restrictions that seem to be stemming the supply of new buildings – and I’m not so sure about that, as my office is on 57th street in Manhattan and I listen all day to back up beepers (I can hear one now) as two new high rises are going up in the block I’m on. But even so, the Hunter College Center for Community Planning and Development and Picture the Homeless just did a study on vacant lots and properties in all five boroughs, showing 6000 lots or buildings… how do we get those factored into the supply I wonder? Are intensification/infill strategies that also factor in adaptive reuse part of the mix? Incentivize those? Cheaper for developer and city, I bet.

    1. Matthew says:

      The big time developers tend to have a bit easier time negotiating the regulatory maze required to put up their big bland office towers or condos. They can pull strings or get insider support (see: 7 line extension). It’s much harder for smaller business owners.

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