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NIMBYs, Jane Jacobs Won’t Help Us Solve Today’s Housing Crisis

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First of all, who was Jane Jacobs and why we should be grateful for her?

Jane Jacobs was an urban theorist famous for spearheading the fight against Robert Moses’ urban renewal and slum clearance policies of the 1950s and 1960s in New York. She was also known for her critical role in stopping both the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York and the Spadina Expressway in Toronto. Both expressway projects would have torn through various communities and neighbourhoods in each city, however, due to her leadership in each community, she was able to delay each plan until it was cancelled.  

Before moving to Toronto with her family in the late 60s, Jacobs was a New Yorker andresided in Greenwich Village. She was a believer and proponent of inner-city and urban neighbourhoods at a time when many people were flocking to the suburbs, advocating for the sense of community that the cities could provide. Jacobs romanticized the idea of a bustling street, where you knew the people walking down them and there was a strong diversity of residential and commercial uses. A firm believer in grassroots organization, Jacobs pushed for a bottom-up approach to planning which contrasted the authoritative norms of the time.

So, what’s the problem? 

READ: Is Ontario Finally Ready to Tackle its Housing Affordability Crisis?

Jacobs’ Legacy 

Jacobs, even after her passing in 2006, is often cited as one of the most influential urban planning theorists of all time. This is primarily due to her magnum opus The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her 1961 book on what makes vibrant and successful neighbourhoods and how modern planning had killed it. Her book is still read and studied by urban planning and architecture students alike, and has inspired many to enter the planning profession. 

The concept of “eyes on the street” was popularized by Jacobs and it is standard today for cities to develop streetscapes with front-facing windows so that communities can self-monitor the public realm. She was also a firm advocate for people to take back the streets from the cars, which she believed were destroying what were once the gathering spaces for city residents. 

Jacobs is also commonly cited for her positions on the preservation of neighbourhood character. Represented in her literature and in her protests, it was evident that Jacobs was against the demolition of neighbourhoods for lifeless highways and towers in the park. Unfortunately, this message of neighbourhood preservation has been adopted today by the NIMBY “movement” as justification as to why neighbourhoods should never be changed, even if that change would benefit many. Many need to come to the realization that her ideas (or at least the way they have been interpreted), may not be the solution to today’s biggest issues, such as the affordability crisis. 

Downtowns now versus then

At the height of Jacobs’ urban planning influence in the 60s, people who once lived in big cities were migrating in masses to the suburbs in seek of larger homes for less. Cities were seen to be failing due to higher levels of crime, poverty, and pollution, while the new post-war suburbs were being sold as pinnacle of the American dream. The beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has parodied this outward movement from the city, but the key difference is that downtown urban real estate is still in very high demand. 

Greenwich Village and the Manhattan districts that Jacobs fought to preserve have become home to some of the most expensive urban real estate in North America. These neighbourhoods, which Jacobs battled to protect, are now the face of unaffordability, as they are mostly low-rise units which take up valuable real estate in our major cities. The context surrounding these neighbourhoods has also changed significantly since the 60s. 

Jacobs’ stance on change & density

In many of Jacobs’ fights, she was fighting against large, sweeping changes that would greatly influence surrounding neighbourhoods. Unlike what NIMBY supporters continue to say, Jacobs was not against change entirely. On page 150 of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she lists four conditions for any part of a city to generate “exuberant diversity”. 

These conditions stated that: 

  1. districts should have a mix of primary uses; 
  2. that most neighbourhood blocks be short; 
  3. that buildings be of various ages; 
  4. and that the area have sufficient density. 

Jacobs recognized that diversity of uses and building types were crucial to the success of a neighbourhood. From these conditions, it is understood that Jacobs would want homogenous neighbourhoods to diversify their built form. 

Jacobs was a proponent of the higher density living that a city could provide, but cautioned urban planners that density alone was not conducive to thriving communities, and required human scaled urban form. Rarely mentioned, Jacobs wrote about this issue within her 1961 manifesto, “In the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble”. In a way, Jacobs did not care what the lot size or building height was, but instead, believed that the land we should care about was that which was being occupied by driving and parking. 

NIMBY appropriation of Jacobs

Mentioned before, many NIMBYs have claimed Jacobs’ speaking points to support their own ideologies. The NIMBY movement is based on the idea that change is a negative and that Jacobs’ ideas of protecting the city were supportive of this, but this is not necessarily the case. Local residents will use Jacobs-like language to reliably shut down dense (often affordable) housing, active transportation improvements, or traffic calming infrastructure in the name of preserving neighbourhood character. 

Affordability Today and Jacobs

The danger of picking and choosing Jacobs’ theories to support arguments of NIMBY can be seen in most cities, with privileged homeowners’ gatekeeping density and affordability for what they perceive as preservation of character. 

Cities like Toronto have become increasingly unaffordable due in part to the interpretations of Jacobs’ theories and applying them to restrict the height and density of developments. It is hard to believe that she would have approved of how unattainable a house is for the working class in her neighbourhood of Greenwich Village. With houses being sold in the millions, the neighbourhood she fought to protect is now an enclave for the wealthy. 

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