When Jane Jacobs died 10 years ago, I wrote this on the personal blog:
Jane Jacobs, 1916-2006
(If you don’t know who she was, please read the NYT obituary.)
When news of her death arrived, I was in the midst of an event that would have been inconceivable without her work: a four day intensive planning workshop — called a charrette in planning parlance — designing a new light rail line for several suburbs east of Vancouver.
When I worked on one of North America’s first modern light rail systems, in Portland in the 1980s, the agency put out videos showing that statons could be built in low-density, single-family neighborhoods without affecting them in any way. To tell the truth — that rapid transit projects would energize denser and more vibrant citybuilding — would have roused terrified homeowners to kill the project.
Today, almost everyone sees rapid transit stations as magnets of convenience around which vibrant, very dense cities can gather. None of the suburban cities at our table wanted rail stations to serve their existing sprawl. They wanted them to galvanize a new high-density urban future, while preserving historical qualities of their communities that give them character and uniqueness. They wanted to create mixed-use places — housing over retail mixed with offices — so people could live complete lives while making many of their daily trips on foot. And though it wasn’t mentioned, they mostly opposed a nearby freeway widening project, which threatened them with more traffic than their roads could accommodate while remaining civilized places.
These were Jane Jacobs’s themes, in her writing and activism in both New York and Toronto. In New York, she will forever be juxtaposed with the mid-century city-builder Robert Moses, who saw cities as confusing messes that needed to be taken apart into abstract systems of order: towers surrounded by parks served by freeways. Her 1961 masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, did more than challenge Moses’s vision, and the devastation it was wreaking on New York. It reread the seeming jumble of cities — the random mixtures of many kinds of people and activites — as the essence of civic health. Today’s consensus among urbanists is her insight.
I felt a special kinship and admiration toward her, because like me she was formally uneducated in her field of practice, and massively suspicious of the planning establishment. In her day, the entire field of urban planning had succumbed to beautiful abstractions: Dense, congested mixtures of activity were bad. Surprises and happenstances had no place. In a beautiful city, everything should be separated, like pieces in a museum or butterflies pinned to the wall for study. The beautiful city would have free-flowing freeways, garden suburbs, towers in parks.
Jacobs first noted that the results of these visions were less vibrant than the “slums” that had been bulldozed to create them, that the very features that made cities seemingly inefficient were those that made them great places where people loved to be. But she thought beyond this simple opposition to develop a theory of cities based not on what she read, but on what she saw. Jacobs, who never finished college, built her extraordinary career on a relentless return to the evidence of her senses. Her best books rest on lyrical and yet finally analyzed descriptions of the life of a street, showing how it functions as an ecological fabric as sound as the one that nature spins in the wilderness, one that produces not just livelihood but also joy.
Fellow environmentalists — you who sing the minute brilliance of the natural world — read Jacobs, and understand those of us who would protect nature by cherishing cities. In dense cities we not only use resources more efficiently, we also expose ourselves to the cacophany of happenstance, daily offerings of mutation that drive the evolution of humanity.