In Defense of Density: Rethinking Jane Jacobs in the Era of Climate Change

Life in a hulking high-rise might not be the graceful “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs extolled. But in the era of climate change, density might hold our neighborhoods together

via Shutterstock

By Alec Appelbaum

What makes a strong community? If you’ve read Jane Jacobs, an image immediately comes to mind: side-by-side row houses, corner stores, parks you can see across. But the experience of life with climate change — in its early innings, anyway — suggests that this classic model may need an overhaul. A resilient neighborhood, that is, may not look very pretty.

Take my corner of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. It generally lacks awnings and stoops, and provides a view of boxy towers and empty lots for five city blocks. These features bear the legacy of top-down planning, the kind that Jane Jacobs vilified in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But my experience after Superstorm Sandy suggests density can support the formation of urban community.

Superstorm Sandy left lower Manhattan without heat or power. My cluster of brick towers, set back from the street and hulking in a manner that would make Jacobs spit, fairly glowed with civic spirit. Men in their sixties made it their business to climb stairs in the dark, checking on older neighbors. Once we had all swung back into daily life, young families organized donation runs to flooded neighborhoods in Queens.

What about the design fostered civic spirit? I’d offer three overlapping categories: pathways, networks, and scale. Gracefulness had nothing to do with it — not outwardly, at least.

High-rise developments like mine have a limited number of pathways through them. People knew each other’s routine paths, so they happened to see each other coming and going. This made it easy to keep track of who was waiting out the power failure, who had access to supplies, and who needed a check-in.

Pathways became lifelines during the crisis. A much-used community room became a relief station with big jugs of water. A sidewalk became a phone-charging outpost. The two-way street that bisects our complex became headquarters for updates.

Density can support extensive networks — virtual and otherwise. People created digital communities on Facebook and other platforms so they could organize relief runs and share updates across the city. During the outage, this entailed a certain amount of complaining, but it also prompted a trove of donations to truly devastated communities near the ocean, which neighbors delivered for weeks after power returned.

The last benefit of density is scale. For example, our apartment complex employs a large staff, made economical by a sizable tenant population. During Sandy, that meant many hands were available to coordinate volunteers and tend to emergencies. And there can be safety in numbers: Crudely, going where more people have already chosen to go often means you’ll be safer.

Of course, density has downsides, as well. One is visual. Jacobs’ ideal championed narrow streets with small buildings against Robert Moses’ vision of burly highways-spanning broad skyscrapers. She held, courageously and eloquently, that cities’ character flowed from their randomness. Make a city into a maze of spires, she insisted, and you make it a sterile pod for the elite.

She was right, if the enemy was a boundless zeal for shopping malls and superhighways. But, as America reckons with the true cost of fossil fuels, urban density becomes more defensible — even desirable, as my friend Andrew Blum pointed out years before Sandy.

Policymakers and designers must take care to craft that density in a way that protects everyone, not just the highest bidders. Today, the cost of fortifying my neighborhood against storm damage begins at $335 million and will only climb. Philanthropy and government have unveiled creative, phased ways to fund the cost of including all residents in the planning. But as costs and danger mount, I can’t promise the lucky folks uphill, where it’s drier, will voluntarily share the till to protect everyone.

Danger also lies in designing big swaths of cities to depend on cloud-stored apps and automatic elevators. These dangers become clear in a power failure. When mechanical systems fail, a high-rise cluster must include ramps, rescue crews, and backup on-site power for seniors who can’t easily manage staircases or darkness (or both).

Human contact becomes more important in cities as climate change advances and sea walls and cooling centers proliferate. That may seem a romantic notion in today’s world, in which much of our contact with others takes place online. Jacobs’ street sweeper might work several neighborhoods via an app today, and her full-time parent might be inside tapping on a screen. But in dense urban developments, you have to work pretty hard to miss noticing your neighbors.

Life in a hulking high-rise might not be the graceful “sidewalk ballet” Jane Jacobs extolled. But in an era defined by climate change, density might hold our neighborhoods together.

Alec Appelbaum teaches at Pratt Institute and runs a teen urban-design curriculum called AllBeforeUs.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, with support from The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. Originally published in The Dirt.