COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Jane Jacobs on Funding Great Places

Jane Jacobs
Oct 10, 2016
Dec 14, 2017

Editor's Note: Jane Jacobs was a Canadian-American urbanist who laid the groundwork for much of our work at Project for Public Spaces and of the Placemaking Movement at large. Her writing and activism changed the way many people understand city planning and economics, and gave ordinary people the license they needed to trust their own experiences and insights.

The following remarks were delivered by Ms. Jacobs at the Fifth Monthly Women Doers Luncheon Sponsored by Mrs. Lyndon B. Johnson, The White House, Washington, DC, June 16, 1964. They appear in Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, co-edited by Samuel Zipp and PPS's own Nate Storring—available in stores today. Although the regime she describes in this speech has changed drastically, the "great unbalance"—an embarrassment of riches for designing and building things and a dearth of support for managing, running and adjusting things—remains intact, and is particularly pertinent to placemaking.

A Great Unbalance by Jane Jacobs

This is an age when we talk more and more about city amenity and produce it less and less. Many outrages are committed in its name. Poor people, Negroes* and businesses on which many livelihoods depend are tossed out of their neighborhoods in the name of somebody’s idea of amenity. Here and there our cities are given slick, artificial mask. But neither that aberration, nor the drabness, dirt, and dispiritedness in other places answers the profound need we have for character, convenience, visual pleasure and vitality—all those things we lump together as amenity and cherish in cities.

The attractiveness of cities is not gotten by subtraction. It builds up from lots and lots of different bits and details, lots of different bits of money, lots of different notions, all coming out of the concern, the affection, and the ideas of lots and lots of different people. The amenity of cities cannot possibly be planned or bought wholesale. It is so much more complicated and quicksilver than a choice between wall-to-wall pavement and wall-to-wall grass.

Almost unnoticed and unremarked, a great unbalance has developed in cities between money for building things and money for running things. Let me give a current example from my own neighborhood. For years we have been begging for repair and restoration of our park. For years the park has been running down. Last month the city offered to destroy the park and build a new one. Why not use that money, the citizens asked, to restore and maintain the park, and several others besides? The parks commissioner candidly explained that his department is starved for maintenance funds but is relatively well off for capital funds. He has money to build an unwanted new park for $750,000 but is hard put to find money for repairing benches, planting flowers, and picking up papers.

The consequences of such unbalance go far beyond dirt and disrepair. The certainty of not having enough money to run things automatically rules out wide ranges of potential recreation in cities, and many forms of potential beauty—not so much because of what these cost to develop but because they take more than routine care. Even the devastating ugliness of parking lots is insured when the hospital director or housing manager or auditorium chairman knows in advance that his budget cannot possibly support maintenance of more than hot, unrelieved asphalt and chain link fence. And how can we make headway combating private devastation of this kind when everyone can plainly see that the public standards are as low or lower?

An Illustrated Guide to Jane Jacobs by James Gulliver Hancock
An Illustrated Guide to Jane Jacobs by James Gulliver Hancock

Variety and character in parks and in the total city scene will steadily become less and less possible, no matter how lavish our lip service to amenity, unless we get many, many more cleanup people, repair people, painters, gardeners, and soon—working for the public. Many of these jobs, incidentally, require little training.

The wild unbalance between capital funds and running expenses is typical of many municipal services, and of all cities. This unbalance is compounded by the present forms of subsidies for highways, institutions, public housing, most instances of urban renewal, and by the devices of public authorities with their own borrowing power. Most of these cases of aid to cities, especially nowadays the grants for highways, remove great territories from the local tax rolls, while they simultaneously increase welfare, policing and social work burdens. Yet the subsidies themselves provide only for construction. They do not provide the equivalent of tax funds, nor even funds for the public share of their own subsequent maintenance costs. The cities’ matching grants to projects can be in the form of capital improvements; this provision frequently stimulates capital expenditures that are unnecessary and even inane. The local borrowing power can be called on to finance these, but the interest comes out of the same pot as running expenses.

Theoretically, all these forms of aid are supposed either to cut running costs or bolster the local tax base; but they are not working out that way at all. The unbalance automatically feeds on itself and increases, because the harder it is to get maintenance funds, the greater the scramble for capital funds instead. Already, it has become easier for cities to let things disintegrate awaiting a big capital expenditure of some kind, and at that point sweep away the good with the bad, the beautiful with the ugly, and the productive with the unproductive. We see the paradox of cities actually impoverishing themselves by capital improvements.

*Although the term "Negro" is outdated and offensive today, it was still in common usage at the time of writing in 1964. We have left the original wording intact for posterity.

Copyright © 2016 by The Estate of Jane Jacobs. Excerpted with permission from Random House Canada, an imprint of RH Canadian Publishing., a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All Rights Reserved.

Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs
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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space