Urban Husbandry

The first criticisms of these changes were primarily reactions to urban renewal and the attempts to retrofit the city to the automobile. Writers and urban advocates such as Jane Jacobs and William H. Whyte promoted the reuse and adaptation of the central pre-automobile cities. Roberta Brandes Gratz called this process of revitalization "Urban Husbandry," (Gratz 1994, p. 147) and those who attempt to carry it out, and oppose the wholesale replacement of cities, "Urban Husbanders" (Gratz 1998, p. 61). I shall use the name for the school of thought that promotes it.

The focus on the central city in Urban Husbandry comes from the Urban Husbanders' experience in it, from their own lives as urban dwellers. Jacobs gives several reasons for studying the central city, but after noting the lack of work on the areas by conventional city planners and the tendency of central cities to expand and engulf suburbs, she says, "Also, to be frank, I like dense cities best and care about them most." (Jacobs, p. 22)

Important to Urban Husbandry is the experience of pedestrians on the streets and in the parks.

"Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city's streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull." (Jacobs, p. 37)

More important than this visual role is the role the streets play in the social lives of the inhabitants. Streets are by their nature public places, and there one can meet and greet those one does not yet know well enough to invite into one's home. "Cities are full of people with whom ... a certain degree of contact is useful or enjoyable; but you do not want them in your hair." (Jacobs, pp. 72-73) Other sorts of contacts -- citizens' political and cultural groups and business connections -- come from this informal social contact in the streets. Without the casual contact of people on the street, life becomes "stultifying". (Jacobs, pp. 72-73)

In Urban Husbandry, the prevention of crime, the adult supervision of children over toddler age, and the economic health of its retail establishments are all tied to the vitality of the streets, sidewalks, and parks. Pedestrians and people in buildings adjacent to the streets (including especially people in street-facing retail establishments) help prevent crime by forming "an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves." (Jacobs, p. 40) They also supervise children playing on the street; this makes the streets in lively urban neighborhoods better and safer play spaces for children than is often supposed. (Jacobs, pp. 97-115) Pedestrians patronize the retail establishments of the central city and their presence in a particular location can determine an enterprise's success or failure.

Cities must be made attractive and convenient to pedestrians if they are to use the streets. Much of Urban Husbandry is concerned with ways of doing this.

Pedestrians prefer to walk in a place that is interesting and where visible elements relate to them. The elements of a good street are "Buildings flush to the sidewalk. Stores along the frontage. Doors and windows on the street." (Whyte, p. 100) Imperative to Urban Husbandry is to cease construction of projects of various sorts that do not present streets like this to the pedestrian. Parking lots, parking garages, elevated highways, and other automobile-oriented structures are examples of development that do not present good streets to the pedestrian; so are buildings where blank walls face the street. "Wherever a significant ‘dead place' appears on a downtown street, it causes a drop in the intensity of foot circulation there, and in the use of the city at that point." (Jacobs, p. 344)

Pedestrian amenities that compete with the street are also to be avoided. Such features as underground concourses, malls with stores facing the interior (usually leaving blank walls to the outside), pedestrian promenades in large "superblocks," and pedestrian skyways thin out pedestrian traffic. Except where pedestrian traffic flow is already extremely high, they tend to deaden street life. (Whyte, pp. 193-205)

These good streets are rooted in the historic pedestrianism of the central city, and the preservation of historic buildings has been an important method of ensuring good streets. Naturally, buildings dating from before the mass availability of the automobile work well for the pedestrian. However, it is not sufficient to merely preserve a few structures of particular historic importance or aesthetic merit. It is the historic pattern of the way the city was used that Urban Husbandry seeks to preserve. (Gratz 1994, pp. i-iii.)

Indeed, aesthetic merit is viewed skeptically: cities are "life at its most complex and intense. Because this is so, there is a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art." (Jacobs, p. 485; emphasis in the original.) Cities have been hurt by the imposition of visual order on a complex and living entity. A building or plaza can be aesthetically pleasing from the detached perspective of an architectural drawing or model, but dull and uninteresting when seen close up by the pedestrian. The scale is different. Less beautiful buildings that satisfy the pedestrian's sense of scale are preferable to beautiful, ordered, yet dead spaces. Visual interest in street scenes is best conveyed through real differences between buildings -- differences in use and differences in age. (Jacobs, pp. 493-494)

To preserve this historic pattern of the pedestrian city, Urban Husbandry advocates the redevelopment of cities -- not by tearing down blighted areas and replacing them with huge urban renewal projects, but by building on a smaller scale within the existing city fabric.

The streets themselves must be made to accommodate the pedestrian, with sidewalks wide enough for expected foot traffic (Whyte, pp. 75-78), appealing street furniture (benches, trash cans, and similar objects on the sidewalk) suitable to the expected use (Whyte, pp. 91-93 and 102), and without giving automobile traffic priority at intersections (Whyte, pp. 61-63 and 68). Streets should be laid out in a grid of small blocks. The grid is more comprehensible to users than older, irregular street patterns (Jacobs, p. 495) or the curvilinear streets popular in suburbs. Long blocks isolate the users of one street from the next one over. This isolation reduces the capability of those living on these streets to jointly support retail establishments. (Jacobs, p. 236)

The types of buildings on the streets are also significant. Most important is that a city district should have different kinds of facilities, facilities that together serve several different purposes. A district should not be uniformly residential, retail, recreational, governmental, or composed of offices. It should be a mixture of at least two of these and preferably more. (Jacobs, p. 198) This mixture of primary functions means that many pedestrians will use the same streets throughout the day. For example, areas of primarily residential function have low numbers of pedestrians during the workday. Areas primarily made up of offices are nearly free of people evenings and weekends.1 A district made up of buildings serving both functions, however, will have people on the streets at times typical of both residential and commerical areas. It will be able to support enterprises such as restaurants and convenience stores that depend on incidental traffic, and it will ensure that pedestrians are constantly on the street, forming the informal network of voluntary controls that ensures safety. If other functions with still different traffic patterns are added, they will contribute pedestrians throughout the day and the week. For example, entertainment uses such as nightclubs, bars, and theaters contribute pedestrians in the late evening. Together these varied primary functions combine to provide more vitality than any one function alone. (Jacobs, p. 199)

Two other factors important in creating city diversity are buildings of mixed age and of high density. Buildings of mixed age allow economic variety on the same street. New buildings can only be supported by enterprises that are subsidized or that can afford the high costs of new construction: banks and chain stores, for example. Other enterprises, such as bookstores or ethnic restaurants are found in older buildings. Large projects that clear land and replace the older buildings there with new ones cannot provide this variety. (Jacobs, pp. 245-246)

Density is the measure of how many dwellings, offices, or other facilities occupy the same land area. Buildings with several stories have higher density, can hold more people at one time, than buildings with one story. A high density of dwellings, offices, and other uses is important because it brings many people to the same area, sharing the streets. Without high density, pedestrian traffic is not high, and none of the positive effects of pedestrianism will be present. (Jacobs, pp. 261, 272-275)

In spite of all these prescriptions, Urban Husbandry is primarily a reaction to large-scale development projects. In part, this is because the projects themselves embodied, from the Urban Husbanders' point of view, bad principles: the results of the projects were not supportive of pedestrianism. However, part of the problem with large-scale planning was also simply that it was of large scale. For Urban Husbanders it is better to have small projects that reinforce the existing city fabric than to create whole sections of city, even if it otherwise would support pedestrianism. This follows somewhat from the need for a mix of building ages, and for the desire for visual diversity as a way of creating aesthetic interest in the city. More fundamental than this, though, is the interest of Urban Husbanders in the participation of the city dwellers in the development of their cities.

This participation is of three forms. First, it is the participation of neighbors and citizens in the process of development and redevelopment. Those who use a city district, as residents or as part of their workplace, see it in a different way than the city planners and architects who typically plan new developments. They are closer to the neighborhood and they see details where professionals see only broad outlines. As users rather than viewers, they have deeper knowledge than visitors can acquire. (Gratz 1994, pp. viii-ix) As such, it is important for them to be involved in plans for development. This can be participation in formal meetings held by city planners, or (as often is the case) partipation in the political and legal process to stop or alter inappropriate development on the part of government or commercial land developers.

Secondly, it is more important that community members themselves become the instigators of changes to the neighborhood. Citizen participation in redevelopment efforts can be active as well as reactive. Once a group of citizens has organized to stop a particularly bad form of development, it can also work to promote good forms of development. Leagues promoting the retention of historic structures can raise money to purchase them and use them appropriately, as the Savannah (Georgia) Landmark Rehabilitation Project did. (Gratz 1994, p. 50) In the Bronx, groups of low-income citizens banded together and with government assistance purchased buildings, refurbished them, and once finished, lived in them. (Gratz 1994, pp. 105-136)

And thirdly, Urban Husbandry has not forgotten that it is the residents and enterprises in a building that provide the resources for the building's upkeep. Citizen participation in the development of cities is most important when that participation is not viewed as a discrete kind of activity ("development") but when that participation is a consequence of the normal activities of business and residence. When a single family or enterprise rehabilitates or builds for its own use, that is also development.

For Jane Jacobs, the process of individual refurbishing and reusing existing buildings in blighted city areas is a process of "unslumming." In slums, there is a rapid turnover of residents as those who have choices leave for better areas of the city or outside the city itself. When residents of city neighborhoods or the owners of enterprises stay in a slum neighborhood by choice, unslumming begins. Usually this is accommpanied by individual refurbishment of the buildings. They are repainted, cleaned, and often small flats are combined into larger ones to provide more room for occupants who find themselves in better material circumstances. Retail stores and industrial buildings are occupied, which provide work for local residents and add to the vitality of the streets. This eventually causes more people to stay rather than leave, thus repeating the cycle. This direct participation by the neighborhood's residents improves the district while retaining its social cohesiveness.2 (Jacobs, pp. 353-380)

There are many financial obstacles in the way of this process, however, especially the practice of financial institutions to refuse to loan money for improvements in these areas, a practice known as redlining. More blatant racial discrimination has also taken its toll. (Jacobs, pp. 370-371)

Even in non-redlined areas, large projects are easier to finance than small ones. This is both because the relatively fixed overhead of lending gives an incentive to make large loans, and because the slow, gradual change of city neighborhoods is harder to envision than the wholesale change caused by a large project. Government money may not be available for small projects, as the results may not be as politically visible as larger projects. Jacobs calls money for projects "cataclysmic money" and compares it to a flood eroding away farmland instead of an irrigation system, slowly bringing life-giving water to the soil. (Jacobs, p. 383) The use of non-profit development agencies has largely been an effort to get around this unwillingness of banks and government to lend or grant money for appropriate projects or to small, untried businsses.

Urban Husbandry, therefore, has three major points: the importance of pedestrians in urban safety and vitality, building on the small scale, and involvement of the local community in local development.

1. As I write this, in downtown Oakland on a Saturday afternoon, I find the shops nearby are, for the most part, closed. The bagel shop, the coffee shop, and even the hamburger chain are closed from Friday evening to Monday morning. This is to be expected in a place where, except for a small number of senior-citizen projects, there are few residences.

2. Stuart Brand in How Buildings Learn devotes a chapter, "The Low Road," to the casual refurbishment and reuse of ordinary buildings and other structures, showing how this works on the smallest scale.

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