After World War II, cities suffered the dreams of the visionaries. It was a time of Big Plans, with those visionaries clearing out blocks of old brick and erecting towers that looked nifty in the scale models they showed to the press.
Dozens of storefronts felled for an expanse of concrete. Dense brownstones wrecked for towers stuck in an ocean of sad grass. There seemed to be no one to speak up for the innumerable quotidian details that made up an interesting neighborhood.
It was Jane Jacobs who hammered out the precepts of successful cities in a 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” and changed the debate on urban planning.
Jacobs, who died in 2006, spent her lifetime writing and speaking about cities. She left a stack of work on urban design, and a new collection, “Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs.”
The title alone tells you who’s in her cross hairs: Daniel Burnham, the proponent of the early-20th-century City Beautiful movement.
Burnham is known for thinking big. “Make no small plans,” he advised. “They don’t thrill anyone. They don’t press their demands upon the imagination.”
Jacobs lived in an era when big plans smothered the life of the city beneath a caul of concrete. As her new collection shows, she never stopped refining her observations about how cities thrive.
The most creative work is the earliest; it has a young person’s delight in describing the life of the city. But the real meat of the work is from the 1950s and early ’60s, when the nuke-it-and-pave-it school was ascendant. Whole blocks were leveled to revitalize the street, all on a mistaken assumption, Jacobs pointed out:
“The street, not the block, is the significant unit,” she wrote. “When a merchant takes a lease, he ponders what is across and up and down the street, rather than what is on the other side of the block. When blight or improvement spreads, it comes along the street.”
Exactly right. Yet Twin Cities development was always about the block, as if replacing 20 structures with one big bunker would change things for the better. Ignore Jacobs’ prescriptions, and you get City Center.
Given her distrust of big plans, it’s a bit disconcerting to read her praise for the Fort Worth redevelopment scheme of 1956. The architect of that plan was an Austrian socialist, Victor Gruen.
You may have heard of him. He designed Southdale in Edina, and was the architect for the Dayton’s building in St. Paul, the structure that sits in the heart of downtown like a massive unexploded shell from a bygone war.
Jacobs believed that Gruen’s plan — a ring of highways, big parking ramps on the edge of town, a pedestrian-only downtown — would result in something that resembled the teeming streets of Greenwich Village. She got it wrong.
It’s important to say that, because she got so much else right — development, historical preservation, transportation, the relationship between the pedestrian and the street, and a dozen other subjects.
Would she have approved of Downtown East in Minneapolis? Possibly. The Wells Fargo towers she would have regarded as an anachronism, a model of concentration she believed had run its course. The housing would get a qualified thumbs-up. The stadium would elicit a sigh. The Commons park, she’d say, would be judged on how busy it was.
Jacobs’ ideas about the primacy of small things loom large, even after half a century.
When huge new schemes bubble up, we need to remind ourselves to be skeptical of the big idea.
The best weapon? The simple truths about the way cities arise, told by someone who watched them fall.