The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Thursday, June 05, 2008


Most anyone who is interested in the subject of American cities or urban planning or Robert Moses or the "urban blight" of the 1950s and 1960s not only knows of Jane Jacobs' classic DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES but assuredly knows its thesis: diversity is good; central planning tends to screw things up; segregating the functions of a city (commercial, transportation, residential, civic, cultural) will damage each of them; cities are complicated organisms not apt to respond well to simplistic theories of how to improve them; the "Radiant City" or "Garden City" or Le Corbusian towers-in-a-park are abominations and antihuman. Okay, I not only get that, but I couldn't agree more.

Jacobs' book, read now almost fifty years after publication, is particularly interesting for Pittsburghers, for Pittsburgh is one of the cities that she has clearly studied. Just to mention a couple of the times she discusses the Steel City: in a section about how cities that segregate their cultural districts away from downtowns and residences so that the residents thus need to drive between the two (and park both places), she points to the "new civic center" (i.e. Mellon Arena) as a place far enough away from downtown that people have to drive between the two. She also discusses the Gateway Center development by Point State Park as an example of "Radiant City" design (i.e. towers in a park) where the open space isn't used, as opposed to Mellon Park, which is heavily used during the daytime hours. She has quite a few very insightful things to say about Pittsburgh's failings in terms of urban redevelopment and planning in the 1950s and 1960s, and she doesn't even mention the mass displacement that followed the construction of the Civic Arena and the subsequent gutting of the lower Hill. Read in conjunction with the recent NEW YORK TIMES article on how Pittsburgh is "adjusting" to its aging population, it's an eye-opener about mistakes made in the past and their current ramifications.

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