JACOBS’ ATTACK ON URBAN
RATIONALISM

  
Jacobs recognized the rationalist mindset of those, such as Le Cobusier,
whom she criticized: ‘The practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if
such it can be called) have ignored the study of success and failure in real
life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are
guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns,
suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from
anything but cities themselves’ (1992 1961, p. 6). Jacobs also saw that the
rationalist planner, despite his pretension of working only from first
principles, in reality, as Oakeshott contended, unconsciously draws upon some
tradition or other in devising his schemes. Jacobs’ point here is that these
planners turned to inappropriate traditions—and to abstractions drawn from
those inappropriate traditions—since they refused to admit that they were
working from a tradition at all. As Jacobs saw it, the fundamental problem that
all great cities solve is how to get very large numbers of strangers with
vastly different beliefs, knowledge, and tastes to live peacefully together.
Jacobs explains how this is possible without central direction. Great cities
harness the diverse “locality knowledge” (Jacobs, 1992 1961, p. 418) of each
of its individual inhabitants. (This point, of course, is essentially identical
to Hayek’s emphasis on “how valuable an asset in all walks of life is knowledge
of people, of local conditions, and of special circumstances” (1945, H.9) What
planners typically failed to see is that safe and lively urban life is largely
the unplanned outcome of informal contact in public spaces. Jacobs argued that
under the right conditions large numbers of people will choose to use public
spaces—e.g. sidewalks and plazas—throughout the day and night, providing “eyes
on the street” that informally monitor and constrain bad behavior. Safe,
interesting public spaces attract people, who in turn attract even more people,
making the spaces more interesting, and so on.

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