A Tribute to Jane Jacobs and a Christian View of Life in Cities

I realized only this week that last year was the centennial of the birth of Jane Jacobs, who was born in 1916 and died in 2006.  Now some or all of my readers might not recognize the name, but among city planners, architectural scholars, urban historians, urban economists and political scientists of an urban bent, she was (and is) legendary.  So my tribute here also gives me an opportunity to once again write about cities, their successes and failures.  It also gives me an opportunity to call for a “theology of the city,” a topic that might seem really esoteric, but which I believe can be seen in Scripture if only we look for the right texts and then are able to construct a coherent theology from them.  

Jane Jacobs began her exposure to urban issues as a thoroughgoing supporter of the then new urban renewal theory and the French and German schools that called for wholesale demolition of inner cities and their replacement with massive high rise apartments for residents and huge parks between the buildings.  What changed Jacobs’ mind was her on encounter in New York City with the grandiose city planner of his day, Robert Moses, whose plans included an almost total destruction of Greenwich Village and other neighborhoods for a new freeway.  Jacobs, always the keen observer of life, noticed that densely populated areas with a diversity of buildings and uses of those buildings–and including “cheap” buildings to house low-rent businesses that couldn’t afford what banks, chain stores and chain restaurants could–created a vitality of life among the residents, even if they were relatively poor of lower middle class.  Those neighborhoods also had very low crime rates, due to what Jacobs later termed “eyes on the street” that existed because buildings and the many varied uses meant that many people at any given moment were either watching consciously or were simply present.  All this combined to make for a robust lifestyle for city dwellers, one that made a city a place one would want to live and work and play (yes, even in the streets).

Beginning in the 1940s and after World war II we entered the era of the “expert” and the “organization man” and of the earlier-initiated European “city beautiful” movement.  Big and sterile were now “in.” The old, allegedly, overcrowded, bustling, chaotic city model was out.  Hence plans like those of Moses, who was wielded a huge influence in New York.  For three years Jacobs doggedly fought Moses’ plan, at city council meetings, planning meetings, with demonstrations of mothers with baby carriages, and so on.  She won, finally, as then mayor Lindsey withdrew his support for Moses’ grand plan.  Thus began the shift in Jane Jacob’s outlook, and the publication in 1961 of her classic book on the life of cities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  She unwittingly, like Martin Luther, burst onto the scene with a new paradigm–without a college degree and with very little formal exposure to urban planning of economics, but with a keen mind and a dogged perseverance.

What is it about Jane Jacob’s thinking that was so revolutionary and what can we learn from it?  And how might her ideas actually be at least partially consistent with a Christian “theology” of the city?

First, she saw cities not as abstract planning exercises but as places where real people lived, worked, formed friendships, worshiped, played, interacted and exchanged, not only goods and services but ideas.  Cities were to exist for people, not people for idealized cities.  And cities had historically existed for people.  They grew organically as it were, based on needs and preferences of the individuals and families who came to live in them.  They were not planned until the nineteenth century in Europe, and much less planned by central governments until the twentieth century, with their massive and enticing grants and funding for the pre-ordained outcome of the city.  Jane Jacobs’ idea was of the local and essentially civil societal development of cities (not that she always eschewed  government, but in its proper role).

Second, Jacobs, through detailed observation, came to see that for cities to actually “work” for their residents they must exhibit certain characteristics.  She detailed these in her classic book mentioned above and continued to write about them until her death.  In essence, cities, to thrive, need diversity, diversity of uses of land as well as diversity in the values attached to land and buildings.  This of course goes to an implication Jacobs only touched on, that is, the problem of zoning regulations.  Zoning, a staple of “good planning” since the early 1900s, and made constitutional in Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. (1928), is predicated on the notion that different property uses don’t mix well.  Therefore, different uses must be isolated and segregated.  Keep business away from residential–at least from single family residences.  And by all means if one is to have businesses near residences, the ideal is “upscale” businesses, not low rent establishments like a traditional walk-in used bookstore.  Jacobs went the opposite way, advocating to difference among uses of land in a given neighborhood, and that these uses can and ought to be mixed together in all sorts of varied ways.

Third, land use should be spontaneous, more or less, not planned (except minimally) by the overarching hand of government.  Government planning is artificial and usually resulted in either a “deadness” because all uses were of the same kind, or a death process because certain kinds of uses were allowed to drive out the spontaneous diversity.  Now to be sure, Jacobs did believe that this vital and lively diversity could bring about its own demise, even where government did not show its heavy hand.  But in general, she perceived a cycle whereby a decline in a neighborhood for whatever reason could be followed by a renaissance–if government did not attempt to bring it about through planning and urban renewal.

Fourth, since Jacobs believed cities were for people, she extended that idea to a desire to see all income levels and racial groups included.  Obviously government might have to intervene to prevent outright discrimination (“redlining”), although some political and economic  theorists believe such practices would eventually disappear.  My purpose here is not to debate that point, but merely to emphasize Jacobs’ diversity idea as all-inclusive of both lane uses and people.  I might add that such areas, if existing, would directly contradict Charles Murray’s observation of the “coming apart” phenomenon in America.  And Murray would be pleased.

In addition, Jacobs had hit upon the principle of subsidiarity when she criticized planning from the top down and particularly from the Federal government.  She consistently argued that local issues ought to be addressed by the affected community, preferably on a voluntary basis, allowing maximal freedom to individuals to be creative and thus creating the optimal conditions for organic urban development.

Fifth and related to aspects of the previous points, Jacobs hated the urban renewal programs of the 1950s through the 1970s, involving as they did, massive demolition of buildings and whole neighborhoods, as well as the severing of one part from another.  These policies, funded by the Federal government (see Martin Anderson, The Federal Bulldozer) only served to destroy diversity, and, if anything replaced the previous uses, it was often big banks, big office buildings, big apartment complexes (mainly high rise) and wide streets.  Diversity died and so did the neighborhood, except perhaps between noon and one for lunch.  Because there were now no “eyes on the street,” even the park areas and green spaces became desolate as no one wanted to visit them for fear of the crime.  Just to put an exclamation point on this problem, the people most often harmed were minorities.  It is unclear whether the expert planners didn’t want minorities, or just didn’t grasp the unintended consequences of their actions, or a little of each, but that is what happened.  

Eventually the ideas of Jane Jacobs began to resonate with planners, but because they were planners, they could not understand that the kind of spontaneous diversity Jacobs had praised, could not be easily replicated simply by planning diversity.  Most of what emerged was drab sameness or upscale sameness, a monotonous and all to unaffordable use of land and mix of people.  The city government could still get tax revenue from these areas, but they had no real vitality.  Where they did thrive, as one might see an “after dark” pub or restaurant district, it was narrowly focused and not really for living, just for “playing.”

Well, what about Jane Jacobs and the Bible?  She herself never professed any religion, though she insisted her children be raised as Presbyterians.  Is there something we can see in her ideas that might be useable in constructing a “theology of the city”?  Let us first explore a theology of the city, if one exists.

One of the characteristics of humans that is included in our nature as creatures made in the image of God is our sociability, our natural and perfectly good tendency to be social creatures (not to say political animals–that is not what I mean here, contra Aristotle).  We tend to associate in permanent or semi-permanent communities of varying sizes, from the family, to the clan, to the village, to the town to the city.  Government didn’t make us do that.  We simply did it and still do it because God made us that way.  The one exception is the formal institution of the family unit as recorded in Genesis 2, which was a formal establishment of a relationship that likely would have occurred if Adam and Eve had simply been left alone but which needed that formal sanction to get it going the right way (one man to one woman) and to show subsequent generations the same covenantal form.  The model for this sociabilty is the Trinity itself, the intimate and eternal communion among the three persons in the one God.  God made us in some respect like Him in that feature of the image Dei. It did not go away with the Fall, though it is now fraught with difficulty, as even writers like Thomas Hobbes asserted.  

Given the propagation of the human race, also tied up with the creation in God’s image, in the “creation mandate,” it was inevitable that humans would live together in larger groups.  This living together was not simply co-existence.  Nor was it only for the purpose of division of labor, specialization, and the exchange of goods and services, although those are not insignificant.

Before I continue I must acknowledge that cities have not always proven to match their pre-Fall and post-Fall ideals implied by the image of God.  To the extent they have not I would have to blame not God’s plan but human sin.  It has been humans who have failed to create the necessary conditions for a flourishing life in cities.  Sometimes the reason was simply that rulers didn’t care about their subjects–notice I called then subjects, as the rulers would have considered them, not citizens, more in keeping with the ideal.  People were exploited, crime was allowed to fester, etc.  Sometimes the problem lay with human ignorance–one of the products of the Fall–that could not know about causes of disease, or fires, or other problems that beset large cities up until the nineteenth century in the West.

At any rate, humans naturally associate not just for economic purposes but for all sorts of other very good purposes–though any purpose can be distorted by sin.  The result is that if functioning properly, a city can advance the goal of a flourishing society.  I am here defining flourishing broadly, to encompass all sorts of thriving, and including religious/spiritual.  In fact, this is one aspect of cities often neglected when we focus only on the economic–as important as that is.

Religion is a part of civil society but also partakes of a different and greater “society,” the Kingdom of God, when its members belong to Christ.  To belong to both is the ideal, but to belong to the latter is the absolute minimum.  If religion flourishes, then individuals and families also flourish, and if religion is both internal and external the flourishing only increases.  Of course the Christian religion is the one true religion and so its encouragement is a primary goal for all believers, for the sake of others, and for the sake of “the welfare of the city,” spoken of by the prophet Jeremiah.  So I am not just advocating a theology of civil religion, though it does play a certain role for cities (and in general).  My ideal, and I believe God’s ideal, is the true Christian religion being proclaimed and believed in cities so that not only will external community life be enhanced but so that more and more people will be striving together for the Kingdom of God and will be “working in the Garden” as it were to create an association–the city–that glorifies God as part of the dominion mandate (see Genesis 1 and 2).

Currently, many cities are in bad shape, economically, but also and especially spiritually.  The Christian vision is a situation where the Gospel first is proclaimed in all its fullness to those who live in those cities and including those who find themselves not as well off.  As the Gospel is proclaimed and churches established, and individuals are converted and begin to develop in their faith, the overall moral climate in the community improves.  I don’t intend to make this sound easier than it is, but it is equally essential if we want to see real and lasting change.  This Christian vision is not at all inconsistent with the ideas of Jane Jacobs, but it does go much deeper and farther.

Cities can be places in which many people can simultaneously live lives of true flourishing  Jane Jacobs gave us a part of the recipe for urban flourishing, and it was not merely economic.  Christianity gives us the rest of the formula, arguably the foundational component for the best possible expression of our natural human sociability.