Hermann Goering and Jane Jacobs, together at last!

Hermann Goering is famous for two things:

1. Being an air force general, and

2. Being a really bad air force general.

What does this have to do, you may ask, with Jane Jacobs, who is famous for a book she wrote in the early 1960s advocating small, mixed-use street-level city development, in contrast to the mega-projects that were advocated by many influential planners at the time.

The connection is, as a London-based friend pointed out to me the other day, that the German bombing of London in WW2 knocked out random sections all over the city, which were then often replaced by various public developments. The knocked-out portions were often small, so there was not always room for megablocks to replace them, and they were scattered—so the new housing was also distributed haphazardly all over the city.

Thus, Goering helped in two ways, corresponding to the two numbered points listed above:

1. His air force dropped bombs and destroyed buildings all over London.

2. His attack was a failure, and most of London was left standing.

One of Jane Jacobs’s lesser-known principles was a recommendation that any neighborhood have a mix of housing stock, some old cheap stuff and some new expensive stuff, so that different sorts of people would be living there: families with young kids, single professionals, oldsters, etc. Patchwork demolition did the job.

I’m no expert on London so perhaps commenters can correct me on the details, but it’s my impression that this particular point has been overlooked. For example, this review by Richard Evans of a book called “A Blessing in Disguise: War and Town Planning in Europe, 1940-45” discusses the effects of destruction and rebuilding, but I didn’t see any mention of the idea that patchwork destruction could allow a partial rebuilding that would automatically result in a mix of housing stock.

P.S. My new buzzword: “fractal devastation”

10 thoughts on “Hermann Goering and Jane Jacobs, together at last!

  1. Folks in the arts community seemed to like like this quote from him “When I hear the word culture, I reach for my Browning!” but according to wiki – that is a misattribution.

  2. As far as I know it is true that only a few vast areas of London were completely destroyed by the bombs, however that did not stop 60s and 70s planners on destroying what was in the way of their big projects (consider bit.ly/1cRlrpA an account of how, much of Haggerston was demolished to build large blocks of buildings).

    I am reading Jacobs’ book right now and I was thinking of how one could go about analizing empirically if the four principles proposed by Jacobs are good predictors of successful urban areas. The covariates could be gathered somehow (at least in theory) but I’m not sure what I would use as a response variable representing successful urban areas; Jacobs talks about “liveliness” and “diversity” as measures of success but I don’t know how you would get records of such things.

    • I created a Jacobs Index based on Jane Jacobs’s four principles, and assigned values to every block in Boston. The resulting map is here:


      The North End clearly stands out as a “Jacobs friendly” neighborhood, which is nice, considering she mentioned the North End in the introduction to Death and Life of Great American Cities as an example of the kind of diverse cityscape that she would champion.

      • I wonder how homeowners themselves react to decisions that boost or hurt their Jacobs index. e.g. Take mixed use: At neighborhood meetings I’ve found homeowners very resistant to a commercial user entering. There’s a lot of NIMBYism at work.

        Wonder how aligned Jacob’s prescriptions are with what residents would choose for themselves.

        • My experience in Mexico city was that people were against three of the four Jacobs’ principles: mixed uses, density and short blocks that allowed for multiple paths were all thought as negative (there wasn’t a clear way to oppose to the presence of diversely aged buildings).
          As she discuss in the book, some of her principles are counter-intuitive (or rather counter-status quo) so I guess in many cases resistance is to be expected.

      • That is very cool Clay, did you look at how the index you created correlates to measures of well-being? I’m thinking stuff like crime rates, life satisfaction, depression incidence, properties turnover. I’m still going through Jacobs book and I keep thinking that her discourse would be much strengthen by some quantitative verification.

  3. As Arturo’s comment implies, the rebuilding may have inspired the development of council estates. Just speculating, but the war demolished a lot of terribly sub-standard housing – meaning East End slums. The contrast between new buildings (with some form of gas or electric “fire” heat) and the old was obvious. And there was much success during the war in relocating people out of harm’s way, which I think may have led to construction of those more “suburban” council estates.

    But more importantly, of course, was Fat Man really that bad? I don’t think so. The Luftwaffe was significantly better than the British and French at the beginning of the war, notably in tactics suited to modern aircraft and not the biplane era. They were also much better at air support for ground troops. Against Britain, the original tactic of destroying the RAF was working. I don’t know or remember the specifics of why they shifted to bombing the cities but I assume that was driven by dear Uncle Adolph.

    The Luftwaffe was overwhelmed in the East by sheer numbers of Soviet planes but performed well. And fighter command in the West maintained its capabilities to the end of the war, developing night fighters and formation busting tactics that killed way too many of our guys.

    I wish the German military had crumbled under inept leadership but they somehow managed to fight very well despite Hitler. And as I remember, the Luftwaffe worked closely with Speer et al to keep production up despite our bombings. The tank guys didn’t do nearly as well, particularly in production of advanced tanks like the Tiger that could have made a difference in the East.

  4. This reminds me of an observation I made while working in Berlin in the early 80s. At the time, Berlin was still a divided city, with East and West still rebuilding from the physical devastation of the war. I don’t know how geographic boundaries corresponded to destruction, but I often felt that I was living in a large scale social experiment gone awry. The fact that a main thoroughfare from before the war abruptly haulted at the Wall was one reminder of the “design”. Over the post_war decades the creation of commercial, residential and public spaces provided an ongoing case study. And yet throughout this period, the underground subways (the Ubahn) traveled the same tunnels they had before the war, seemingly oblivious to the political realities through which they rumbled.

  5. That’s a very interesting association and I have another case study for you.

    The Northridge earthquake knocked out a great many apartment buildings in the San Fernando Valley (SFV part of LA) in 1994. Destruction was uneven for several reasons. “Soft story” buildings were particularly vulnerable and that type of design was common in small apartment complexes. The waves reflected off the nearby granite mountain ranges and formed an interference pattern across the alluvial plain/valley. This caused scattered destruction over a wide area.

    The SFV has enjoyed a renaissance after the quake. It’s residents enjoy some of the highest Walkscores in California–comparable to San Francisco. I would really like to see a study that compares the economies and demographics before and after the earthquake and compare that with mega development.

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