Neighborhoods, Diversity and Mixed Uses

“American downtowns are not declining mysteriously, because they are anachronisms, nor because their users have been drained away by automobiles.  They are being witlessly murdered, in good part by deliberate policies of sorting out leisure uses from work uses, under the misapprehension that this is orderly city planning.” ~ Death & Life, 223

Now we are getting to the meat and potatoes of what economics really is.  I think we tend to come at economics from so many angles – and most especially the top-down (macroeconomic) angle – that we have forgotten what economics is and why it works where it works and doesn’t where it doesn’t.  Microeconomics starts at the individual level and tries to work its way upward to explain why inflation, unemployment and recession happens, and macroeconomics starts at the large-scale, state or even national level and tries to work its way downward to explain the same phenomena.  Neither of them can seem to meet in the middle because one can only see the trees and the other can only see the forest.

Jacobs begins at the neighborhood level.  While individual and family economic decisions are interesting, they don’t really tell us much about how economics as a system works.  If we simply concede that people generally make economic decisions in what they conceive to be their own and their family’s best interests within the constraints of their physical and economic environments, then demand and everything else at the family level is really just minutia.  Where it starts mattering for explaining macroeconomic events is at the neighborhood level – the very level that both micro- and macroeconomics is completely silent about, and the very level that is needed to start bridging the two very different disciplines of economics.

Jacobs lays out four requirements for economically (and often socially as well) healthy neighborhoods: 1) Diversity of uses; 2) Small blocks; 3) Healthy stocks of old, cheap commercial and residential buildings; and 4) Relatively high density (not to be confused with overcrowding, but I’ll get to that in another post).  All of this working together provides the best conditions necessary for generating economic diversity, which is the driver of growth for a neighborhood (and, in turn, a city, a region, and a nation).  Note: economic development and growth can happen without all of these being present, but it is more likely with all of them present; and sometimes these four characteristics will be present in a failing neighborhood.  There is NO silver bullet.

What is diversity of uses? Jacobs defines this as a mix of primary and secondary building and street uses that draw people at different times through a day.  Residences, workplaces, grocery stores, and some cultural venues are primary uses, because people have to live somewhere, and they have to work, and they have to feed themselves, and they need some sort of entertainment (even free entertainment) to stay sane.  Secondary uses are luxuries, services that are targeted to the primary users, such as restaurants, novelty shops, galleries, dry cleaners, bookstores, etc.  Neighborhoods that are mostly residential with a smattering of other primary uses are not diverse (and, by the way, are not able to support themselves long-term without massively hiking property taxes).  Central Business Districts devoid of residences are just as unhealthy.  Neighborhoods which, on the large scale, have a good mix of primary uses but separate those primary uses so that some streets are for commerce and others are for residences also miss the mark, because the goal is to get people on the same street at the same time all throughout the day and evening.

A neighborhood which has a good mix of primary uses and uses its streets efficiently is apt to also have a good mix of secondary uses.  In fact, the best way to diagnose the health of a neighborhood is to measure the number and diversity of secondary uses.  In addition, the best way to measure the trend of a neighborhood is to compare the number and diversity of secondary uses from one year to the next.  If the services are shutting down or moving elsewhere and nothing is replacing them, that is a good indication that a neighborhood is declining.

There is so much more to unpack with mixed uses.  This is something I could write about for a while and likely will.

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