VOICES FROM THE INDUSTRY: Late urban planner’s ideas still hold lesson for today

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Jane Jacobs passed away in late April. This working mother with no formal education in urban planning wrote the book that revolutionized the way we thought -and still think-about cities.

“The Death and Life of American Cities,” first published by Vintage
Books in 1961, became the equivalent of the “Art of War” by Sun Tzu in the fight against “urban renewal” in the 1960s. Ms. Jacobs’ enemies in the 1960s probably thought she was tougher on them than Sun Tzu was on his.

Remember her viewpoint. Her reference to “death” recalls the time when interstate highways were crushing their way through cities. Some of us still can remember when restaurants, a few bars and many small houses dotted the land where Interstates 65 and 70 roll through Indianapolis today.

It also was the time when so-called “old buildings” were destroyed to make room for “glass boxes.” The Claypool Hotel story still has resonance for local historians.

Jacobs saw cities as a very messy overlap of private initiatives and personal preferences, both of which had differing economic purposes. She thought the key to self-renewal depended on many local initiatives. Most people associate her with the importance of the sidewalks and storefronts, not just for Saturday morning cuteness and convenience, but for security and safety as well.

She highlighted the balance between housing and working as the key to successful and lively cities.

Surprisingly, she was not an enemy of the automobile.

“Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains … but the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building,” she wrote. Her gripe was that “planners and designers believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will solve the major problem of the cities.”

The copyright for “The Death and Life of American Cities” was renewed in 1989, but time and funding sources have moved on, just as cities have moved out.

Changing tactics

The forward edge of the battle in the ’60s was how cities should be planned or not planned. Now the tactics must shift to how we will re-plan or not re-plan. The trend toward downtown housing, the increase in the cost of gas, the aging population, an aging housing base and the maturing of the suburbs are indicators of big changes and changing needs.

And there’s another key difference between then and now. We must consider
how much it will cost-or not cost.

In the ’60s, urban-renewal subsidies seemed to be almost unlimited. Today, the only city getting help to rebuild seems to be Baghdad. Indianapolis and most other cities are on their own when the infrastructure bill collector comes along.

The “life” message in Jacobs’ book related to how incremental planning (and financing) is the right way to keep our cities alive and serviceable. Incremental financing-called user fees-isn’t a new idea. That’s the good part.

For example, when Marion County was faced with the huge cost of fixing our sewers and cleaning up our streams, our leaders combined the sewer bill with the water bill and added a fee. The quantity of water used now drives how much you pay for the sewers.

The next monster facing all of us is our streets. Jacobs applied a verse from the Book of Job to make her case, so I’ll change it a little for my example: “A cry goes up from the city streets, where wounded men lie groaning.” Substitute “tires” for “men” and the case is made for repaving many streets (and a lot of sidewalks, too). We can complain or we can search for answers.

Additional taxes? No way.

What else might be done? Well, the utility companies use the streets as much as we do. And they use them for the benefit of all. Part of our problem is they have to tear into the streets to make repairs (which absolutely must be made) and those patches seem to crumble first.

Assume we have a rolling plan to resurface about 50 miles of streets per year. The project cost to remove the old pavement and replace the wearing surface coat on two lanes is about $150,000 per mile, resulting in an annual cost of about $7.5 million.

If the user formula for the sewer project is applied to this number for both the gas, water and sewer bills, the monthly cost per customer should be pretty small.

Jacobs explained why cities work (or don’t work), and most of her ideas still make sense. She championed the idea of solving the problems of cities incrementally and individually. Whether this idea makes sense or not, our streets must be fixed. And we are the “increments and individuals” who must pay for it.

Altemeyer is a founding principal of BSA LifeStructures, the Indianapolis-area’s largest architectural firm. Views expressed here are the writer’s.

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