Fifty-one years after the publication of Jane Jacobs’s seminal work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, our nation is still marked by a portfolio of “legacy cities”—a recently adopted term-of-art developed by the American Assembly at Columbia University to describe the phenomenon of American cities that have been losing population, increasing the area of unproductive land, and retaining a high majority of the region’s poor, unemployed, and undereducated citizens. The current conditions of these cities can be traced directly back to many of the urban policies of the last century—policies that allowed regional sprawl to decentralize the urban core, leaving behind underutilized and crumbling infrastructure, antiquated and inflexible land-use regulations that discourage innovation, and concentrations of generational poverty resulting in weakened civic capacity. There is no better illustration of our collective desensitization to this condition than the country’s nonchalant reaction to Detroit’s dramatic 25 percent population loss over the last decade, and the suggestion that, for some cities, “death” may be a more viable option than “life.”
We must reject the notion that American cities of this type cannot become productive and competitive places to live, work, and play again. After all, Detroit is still a city of 713,000 residents, including families with children. What would become of them if death were chosen over life? Instead, this condition should inspire us as designers and planners to take on the task of reinventing the American city—reprogramming its function, redesigning its urban form and architecture, and identifying and legitimizing a new and expanded range of protagonists with the authority to act. The resurgence of our legacy cities and the neighborhoods within them depends on a willingness to embrace certain strategies: innovative infrastructure technologies that reduce the spatial and social divides between race and opportunity; limits on urban growth with amended standards for permanent and transitional urban density; revised zoning that allows for more ingenuity in urban planning, building design, and ecological restoration; and new models of leadership and cooperation that facilitate a shared vision for the more productive and sustainable utilization of land and labor.
The Boom and Bust of the American City
Issues of equity, inclusion, race, justice, access, and connection are still unresolved in many American communities, leaving a context of urban landscapes where the work of uplifting people and place remains a large task. These issues have created a series of marginalizing conditions that continue to have a devastating impact on civic identity and participation, household wealth and health, and social equity and justice. The impacts of regional sprawl, urban abandonment, race and class segregation, and economic, spatial, social, and civic isolation have been well documented as explanations for the depressed conditions of our legacy cities today.
So, how did we get here? Several American cities saw the beginning of their population growth fueled by the Great Migration, the period between 1916 and 1930 where nearly 6 million African Americans migrated from the rural south to the industrialized cities of the north. The rail- and automobile-production industries offered these migrants unprecedented opportunities and freedoms to earn a living wage. Automobile pioneer Henry Ford’s revolutionary “five-dollar day,” together with the five-day work week, provided the average worker, one with a high school education or less, the ability to afford a piece of the American dream—a car and a single-family home in a neighborhood with local schools, churches, play areas, and shopping.