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Jane Jacobs Part III: How Efficiency Destroys Cities

In The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs makes a comparison between Manchester and Birmingham England.  When the book was written in 1969, Birmingham was a rising star and competed with London as a world-class manufacturing center. Manchester was an economically stagnant place falling in influence. The difference, she wrote, was development. Development of new goods, innovations, R and D, and adding new work to old work.  Manchester was more efficient in pumping out widgets but concentrated on only one or two industries; Birmingham had an entrepreneurial culture and diversified manufacturing base which allowed for economic development over the course of decades. Less efficient, but in the long run, prosperous and sustainable. When the paths of these cities first began to diverge, Birmingham must have seemed more chaotic and “messy”. Less productive. A more organic city, but one that afforded opportunity to a broader range of people.

She goes on to site another example of the Roman Aqueducts, claiming that Rome’s utilitarian water needs were “amazingly neglected” except for the baths, gardens and homes of the wealthy. The aqueducts were conceived and funded by the wealthy, for the wealthy.

“Solutions to most of the practical problems of cities begin humbly. When humble people, doing lowly work, are not also solving problems, nobody is apt to solve them.” Economy of Cities, Pg 105

The most efficient solution to Rome’s water needs – massive aqueducts carrying millions of gallons of water, was mostly ineffective in getting water to people’s homes. Empowering people and giving them the tools to solve their own problems fills in the gaps that are left when the most efficient solution is riddled with glaring omissions.

The concept of efficiency is taken even further, describing our late 20th century urban planning models:

“It is most efficient for large construction firms to produce monotonous multiples of identical buildings; it is most efficient for architects to design multiples of identical buildings. Superblocks are more efficient than smaller blocks because there are fewer crossings and traffic can flow more efficiently; where there are fewer streets, utilities can be distributed more efficiently and maintenance costs are less.” Economy of Cities, Pg 101

Jacobs spoke out against architectural homogenization and superblocks in her previous book, Death and Life. The quest for efficiency destroyed large parts of cities across the country. A local example:

"The cycle of the machine is now coming to an end. Man has learned much in the hard discipline and the shrewd, unflinching grasp of practical possibilities that the machine has provided in the last three centuries: but we can no more continue to live in the world of the machine than we could live successfully on the barren surface of the moon." - Lewis Mumford

US-40 in West Baltimore, also called the “Highway to Nowhere”, and deemed the “The Highway to Somewhere” in the West Baltimore MARC Station Master Plan. 20 blocks destroyed, 1,000 households displaced and numerous churches and historic buildings demolished for a 1.6 mile freeway, its connection to the beltway canceled due to community opposition and funding issues.    I converted the map to monochrome to show the huge spaces of underutilized land, the mess of on/off ramps abutting neighborhoods and the desolate superblocks east of MLK Jr. Blvd. If you look more closely you can see the cow paths where people cross multiple lanes of traffic and concrete barriers to walk between the two halves of Fremont Ave. :

During the design and construction of the Interstate system, the most efficient solutions to traffic usually disregarded how people traveled within their neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods themselves.  This is the Manchester of urban design – it does one thing very well (move cars), but as originally designed it is inflexible in its use and myopic in its scope. There are plans, however, to turn this highway into a community asset. Let’s hope we are far less efficient today.

7/21/10 Update: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all the work BaltiMorphosis has done with their concepts for West Baltimore.  Their plans show the magnitude of destruction caused by this urban highway and the design possibilities which could someday revitalize an enormous area of the city.