Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Towards the TSP Update: Rereading Jane Jacobs

So reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities risks cliche and even idolatry. And yet, the book is sooooo good!

With winter and the forthcoming update to the Transportation System Plan, it seemed like a good time to reread and reassess Jane Jacobs (who died in 2006): Salem is not yet a great city, neither in size nor in accomplishment - and indeed by her measures will likely never attain the epithet "great" - so what relevance might she have?

The city says
The Salem Transportation System Plan (TSP) is the City's master plan to guide its actions and investments for the 21st century. The Plan is a comprehensive document containing goals, objectives, policies, projects, and programs needed to provide mobility for the next 25 years.
But does Jacobs' writing in the 1950s have relevance for a plan ostensibly directed towards the 2000s?

She cautions against interpreting her analysis too broadly.
I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which are still suburban. Towns, suburbs and even little cities are totally different organisms from great cities. We are in enough trouble already from trying to understand big cities in terms of the behavior, and the imagined behavior, of towns. To try to understand towns in terms of big cities will only compound confusion.

Yet she also writes
Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less of a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building. Of course planners, including the highwaymen with fabulous sums of money and enormous powers at their disposal, are at a loss to make automobiles and cities compatible with one another. They do not know what to do with automobiles in cities because they do not know how to plan for workable and vital cities anyway - with or without automobiles.

The simple needs of automobiles are more easily understood and satisfied than the complex needs of cities, and a growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problem of cities. Cities have much more intricate economic and social concerns than automobile traffic. How can you know what to try with traffic until you know how the city itself works, and what else it needs to do with its streets? You can't.

When we look at the $100M "Keep Salem Moving" road construction projects, and the contemplated $500M highway-style rivercrossing project, we see clearly the ways that politics and planning in Salem exemplify Jacob's point about over-simple analyses and synecdoche. If we just create more road capacity, things in Salem will move more smoothly - more economic development, more culture, more prosperity. Solving the motorized traffic problems promises to solve a host of other problems. If only it were so simple.

Perhaps in the next month or two we can see what relevance Jacobs' analysis does have for Salem. Are there ways what she has to say legitimately applies to Salem, whether you reckon it merits "small city" status or is just a town? It certainly seems that her thoughts stand a fair chance of applying to the downtown core, the vestige of a 19th and early 20th century downtown that did resemble on a smaller scale the cities she analyzes.

Perhaps there are others who would be interested in reading along?

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