A Neighborhood Valentine


"Neighborhood is a word that has come to sound like Valentine. As a sentimental concept, "neighborhood" is harmful to city planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense."

-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

February 14, 2012: It's not often I disagree with Jane Jacobs, the godmother of urban planning. But I take issue with the notion that getting sentimental about our city neighborhoods is a bad thing. An emotional connection to these places does not oversimplify them or make them more provincial. We wouldn't live here if that's what we were after. The qualities we love (yes, love) most about these city neighborhoods are the very qualities that make them urban.

Jacobs' broader argument makes sense. She expounds on her Valentine statement to say there is danger in oversimplifying the neighborhood unit as "supposedly cozy," "introverted," and "self-contained." She says a successful city neighborhood is much more complicated. The success of a city neighborhood is intricately and economically tied to the vitality of a much larger and more complex city. Our city neighborhoods attract residents in large part due to the draw of the city beyond them. People live here because they are compelled by access to urban opportunities and amenities and diversity and movement and culture. Urban neighborhoods are fluid; people continuously move in and out. They are not always, day in and day out, places where everybody knows your name.

I understand the need to take the hard-nosed, practical line. I get what Jacobs means when she says the death of our cities would come from parceling their neighborhoods off into little towns of their own. But I say get sentimental about it. Declare your love for your corner of the city. A little emotion can go a long way.