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what jane jacobs can teach us: borders

Jane Jacobs wrote the book on city planning for the latter half of the 21st century, and it’s yours for a little more than $10 at Amazon — The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Need more convincing?

Jacobs has a little something for everyone, whether you’re interested in learning about why a neighborhood is hip or dull, slums improve or decline, your university’s neighborhood was so boring, border towns are wastelands, automobiles are so problematic yet important, visual perception affects city life, city planning and public spending failed miserably, different processes of scientific thought shape city policy, the role of economic development in city formation, and/or the role of city formation on economic development. (Exhale)

I’ll have a series of posts bringing out some of her broader points that I think are applicable to not only cities, but economic development at home and abroad. First up, is Jacobs’ treatment of borders, which for the most part refers to borders between towns, but I find quite applicable to most borders.

Dead End or Hub?

Border areas suffer from a lack of land use and circulation of people, which stimulate local growth and safety. Intensity is low because border areas are the last stops on the line, dead ends that inhibit individuals from traversing across the border area. These border areas suffer from “fewer users, with fewer different purposes and destinations at hand,” creating vacuums that are typically unproductive and unsafe. Some borders allow traffic one-way (Arizona/Mexico), others see traffic, but only at certain times, but the effect is the same. Border areas are best served by making the border a “seam rather than a barrier, a line of exchange along which two areas are sewn together.” It’s not that border areas, or frontiers, are prone to blight and disuse. To the contrary, frontier areas are positioned to be uniquely original and creative thanks to cross-border exchange and ability to escape potentially crippling central oversight. Jacobs’ insight is that the border areas have their fate in their own hands, at least to some degree. They can fade into disuse and disrepair as the last building in the dead end, or they can serve as a hub for interaction between both sides of the border. The potential for these areas cannot be overstated — frontier cities are often the centers of the next empires. Historically, commerce, exchange, and the free flow of ideas and goods have been the keys.

Claustrophobic borders

Some areas are large enough and diverse enough to be productive and vibrant despite being cutoff by a border (though the smaller area specifically near the border won’t be vibrant), but it becomes increasingly problematic when the neighborhood is too small to support itself as a district. This merries well with the literature I’ve seen with regards to small nation-states — too small to support the diverse commerce needed — damned to exist as fragments by borders which inhibit the pooling of human and financial resources needed to grow. What if Rhode Island had its own currency, tariffs and regulated employment visas for other states in 1960? Well, if you add in a bunch of poor, violent neighbors and make our little state a land-locked country with no history of effective governance and scarce resources you’d have Burundi, with a GNP per capita of about $90. Would the dissolution of borders make Burundi the center of an African superpower? Likely not, but it does serve as a barrier to the the accumulation of capital — financial and human — needed to escape the poverty trap.

Minor internal borders as wasteful barriers

Jacobs has additional insights into man-made barriers that lead to dullness and blight, which I think are worth noting. She focuses on single elements with low intensity land use, such as civic centers, large medical centers, large parks, and universities. She reserves special criticism for universities, which orient inwards, completely disengaged from their surroundings, producing a deadness to all that borders them. She looks at Central Park and notes that the area goes nearly unused at night; it features many attractions like carousels buried deep inside, which should be pushed to the border with the city, to allow for greater utility. The challenge is to minimize these large single-use areas, or at least pack them near multi-use, high-concentration areas that can overcome the single-use area’s deadening externalities. City planning misconceptions have even taken some positive city features, like waterfronts and parks, and made them dull, by insisting on single uses that serve only small segments of the populations at specific times — making the areas dull and even unsafe at other times.

Next to you are walking around a city, pay attention to the buildings around you and how they are used; do they serve multiple uses, populations? Do the buildings use throughout the day, or only at specific times? Are there large single-use facilities? Are the blocks small or large (I’ll have to return to this later)? By what visual cues do you segment the city? Jacobs packs a lot of insight to both shape how you understand the world around you and how the city around you is shaping your perception, habits, and opportunities.

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