Be Careful When Citing Jane Jacobs: Her Conclusions Don’t Always Hold


As a professor who teaches about cities and the urban form, I very much appreciate the sidewalk ballets and street-corner societies that have historically existed in our nation’s urban centers. These features of the built-environment have long been powerful factors in the formation of both social capital, community, and a place’s identity. But it is a mistake to overstate the power of sidewalks and other features of urbanity in the creation of diverse ties as Eboo Patel approvingly does in Inside Higher Education when he cites Jane Jacob’s idea that “sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.”

Urbanists, social theorists, and policy have all been looking for ways to improve our nation’s civic health and state of social capital, but writers such as Patel need to be careful when talking about Jacob’s ideas because many of her observations were shortsighted and narrow, many of her conclusions about the dynamics of city life were simply incorrect, and her work was written in a different socio-economic era where settlement patterns, economic conditions, and communal institutions were appreciably different from today.

Data from AEI’s Survey on Community and Society (SCS) furthers the line of questioning about Jacob’s conclusions because the data reveals that those who live in cities – places with sidewalks and often have more instances of “architecture of engagement” compared to suburban and rural areas – are not appreciably closer to their communities and neighbors when compared to those inhabiting social networks in the suburbs. These have long been criticized by such scholars as Kenneth Jackson and Robert Putnam, as well as Jacobs, as places of isolation.

For instance, the SCS survey asks about how much do the people in your neighborhood or in the immediate area where you live give you a sense of community and the differences in urban form are minor. In large cities and their suburbs, just 20% of respondents believe that the people nearby give them a strong sense of community. In small cities or towns, the figure increases a few points to 26% and climbs to 28% in rural areas. As for talking with one’s neighbors, a prerequisite for real relationships to develop, there are no appreciable differences by urban form with roughly 50% of those in rural, suburban, and urban areas all claiming that they talk with the neighbors a few times a week or more and three-quarters says a few times a month or more regularly.

Going further, when asked about cooperating for a communal good – like conservation of electricity or water – 70% of city residents thought that it was likely or very likely that people within the community would cooperate. However, 75% of those in the suburbs thought the same. In small cities and rural areas, the number was comparable at 74%.

Relatedly, 47% or urban dwellers and 49% of suburbanites very much or pretty much share the same values and that figure climbs to 59% for those in rural areas – which often lack the sidewalk infrastructure of community but claim to share more values. So, it is clear that urban areas are not on the vanguard of community relationships and cohesion despite the far greater likelihood of sidewalk interactions and Jacob’s idea that cities have “built-in equipment allowing strangers to dwell in peace together.”

While sentiments about one’s community shed light on Jacob’s ideas about the import of physical structures promoting tolerance and appreciation for difference, it is valuable to examine network diversity as well. The SCS has a battery of items which ask about social network composition on a number of dimensions. The data, like before, demonstrate that those living in dense cities generally do not enjoy more diverse networks compared to their suburban counterparts.

More specifically, the survey asks, “Of the people you interact with most regularly in your community, how many of them do you believe have different political views/religious views/are of a different race or ethnicity from yours/have a different educational level from you?”

It turns out that it’s, if anything, the core city dwellers who inhabit a “bubble” lacking in diversity. When looking at political views, 48% of those in urban areas maintain that half or more of those in their community hold different political views from their own. Rural areas come in at 48% while the figure jumps to 55% for suburbs and 57% for small towns and cities. As for education, 64% of urbanites state that about half or more of those that they regularly interact with in their community have a different level of education than they do. The figure increases for every other spatial arrangement where 65% of those in rural areas have more diverse networks based on educational attainment. The figures are even larger at 68% for small towns and cities and even higher at 70% for the suburbs. This makes it quite clear that cities, despite their built environments, are not creating more diverse communities and networks as far as politics and educational levels are concerned.

As for race and ethnicity, urban areas fare a bit better. 45% of urbanites hold that half or more of those with whom they regularly interact are from a different race or ethnicity. But that figure is identical in suburban areas, where many immigrants and their offspring now decamp. The numbers drop in smaller urban areas to 42% and is lower at 33% in rural areas. With religion, 53% of urbanites say that half or more of their networks are comprised of people with different faiths than their own and that figure is identical is suburban and small cities and towns as well. The percentage drops to 49% for rural Americans but this difference is not a huge order of magnitude. In fact, while urban areas are marginally more diverse racially and religiously compared to rural areas, urban areas are not particularly different from the suburbs.

In short, the work and ideas of Jane Jacob’s have powerfully shaped generations of thinking about urbanism and the role small neighborhoods play in the creation of real communities. However, many of her observations do not hold up to empirical scrutiny as seen with the SCS data. Her pronouncement, more than a half century out of date, are taken too seriously by Patel and other urban scholars when talking about sidewalks. The built environmental is deeply related to community formation but is it critical to consider and account for neighborhood culture and the seminal institutions and community amenities --- things such as churches, school boards and clubs --- which draw people together and allow for the development of social capital. Sidewalks can and certainly do play a role in communities and propinquity, but it is wrong to continue to assume that the existence of sidewalks and densely packed streets create more meaningful communities or more diverse networks.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.