Jane Jacobs was a journalist and community activist who is now widely considered a patron saint of urban planning. Her most famous work, published in 1961, is The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I recently read the book and am reflecting on what it tells us about Mapleton-Fall Creek.
Jacobs wrote at a time when cities looked at historic neighborhoods as “cancers” that should be bulldozed and replaced with utopian garden cities: high-rises separated by expanses of grass. She fought New York City when it wanted to tear down much of Greenwich Village to build a freeway through Washington Square. Although she was a successful community organizer, she is best remembered for the enduring quality of her ideas about how to foster great urban places.
According to Jacobs, urban places work best when they have diversity of uses, and this requires four conditions:
- An area must have at least two primary mixed uses (for example, residences and offices) so that there are enough people around at all times of day and night to keep watch over the area.
- The layout of the streets must provide many different ways to move from point A to point B. This is accomplished by having short blocks. Blocks that are too long create stagnant, backwater places that are out of the way from other places in the neighborhood.
- There must be variety in the age of the buildings. If all of the buildings were built at the same time, they are likely to attract monotonous uses. Old, low-rent buildings are especially important because they provide opportunities for all kinds of people and enterprises that have a lot to contribute but otherwise could not afford to be in the area.
- You need density. High density can generate liveliness, safety, convenience, and interest. Low density can present opportunities for trouble to fester out of the public view.
I think Mapleton-Fall Creek has a lot of these conditions and, perhaps more importantly, is well-positioned to improve these conditions in the next decade. We are talking about the triangular portion of midtown Indianapolis formed by 38th Street, Meridian, and Fall Creek:
- It has 7,000 residents, but also many offices, schools, churches, and important commuter arteries. There are always people around.
- It was built to be walkable. The original street design revolved around streetcar lines and remains almost entirely intact today.
- Most of its buildings are old, and most of them are low-rent. But there is significant diversity in construction year, especially among the commercial properties.
- It is among the densest neighborhoods in Indianapolis, and has plenty of infill opportunities. And the planned Red Line will trace two of the three sides of the neighborhood, bringing with it transit-oriented development.
Jacobs’ ideas are too good to ignore, but we must be very cautious in trying to apply them to Mapleton-Fall Creek. This is not Greenwich Village and does not have the level of density Jacobs explored. The introduction of The Death and Life of Great American Cities explicitly warns that her observations about big cities should not be transferred to little cities. And a lot has changed since 1961. Many people work from home, online shopping and big box stores have displaced small retailers, security cameras are new “eyes on the street,” and cars have become even more important to American transportation. Still, Jacobs’ ideas are more respected than ever. They do not apply to Mapleton-Fall Creek “off the shelf,” but with a little adaptation they have a lot to say about what has made our neighborhood great, and how we can make it better.