Lessons Smart Cities Can Learn From Jane Jacobs
Outstanding strategies often fail because they ignore people's true preference. Take a hard look, for example, at Delhi's central business district, Connaught Place. On weekends, the market and the Rajiv Chowk Metro station are teeming with millions of people. Though it is one of the most expensive retail office space markets in the world, the buildings' structure leaves much to be desired. Vehicles and parked cars do not leave much space for pedestrians. Heights of buildings remain short, while floor space costs a fortune. Parking charges are insignificant, though parking spaces cost as much as floor space. In rent-controlled buildings, monthly rents are shockingly low. In other words, Connaught Place is a classic case of planning failure.
However, this does not mean that city cores like Connaught Place do not have much to teach us. By looking around, we can see what people actually prefer. If people prefer to shop, work or do business in a crumbling and congested city core, the benefits probably outweigh the costs. If the usage of mass transit is high, this perhaps means that people prefer things that way.
Urban planners should try to bring into existence what people actually value, while removing what is unpleasant. For example, there is no reason why Connaught Place has to be crowded, if it is densely built. There is no reason why people should not be charged for parking in one of the most expensive parts of the world. There is no good reason why Connaught Place cannot have skyscrapers.
Jane Jacobs, similarly believed that master plans do not have much effect on how a city's structure emerges. This is because the less the government interferes, the more it will reflect the true preferences of people. If people are willing to put up with crowding to access more amenities, the structure of the city will reflect that. If people prefer not to live far from the heart of the city, the structure of the city will reflect that as well. The only way the government can change this is by imposing restrictions that are too draconian; for example, they placed upper limits on the height of buildings in cities like Mumbai and Delhi. The consequences are unbearable for most city-dwellers, though the objectives of city planners, such as decongesting city cores and creating uniform built spaces, never materialised.
The most important lesson, perhaps, is that cities are not a result of planners' design but of the market process. Why is this so? In an area like Connaught Place, for example, the interactions between traders, consumers and all market participants is so complex, so frequent and so many that a single mind cannot plan this. But, when the market is well-functioning, traders and amenities will spontaneously emerge to meet the needs of people, without the oversight of a planner.