Jane Jacobs at 100

17285When 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.


7 Responses to Jane Jacobs at 100

  1. Greg Michaud May 5, 2016 at 6:27 pm #

    Nice Eulogy, I appreciate your perspective, I read her a long time ago now, (I’m 68), much of what she says is still relevant today.
    I wanted to comment on your Russian and Anchorage posts. I have looked over the documents, I tried to use Google maps in Russia with Yekaterinburg and it seems to cover a very limited space and I could never get orientated
    However I think what would be great if you offered an optimum solution also. Here is the best approach irregardless of the costs.
    The trouble with budgets is that it becomes an excuse to do little or nothing.
    I live in St. Louis and have mentioned your name on a couple of urban blogs suggesting your expertise is what the St. Louis needs to help sort out the transit mess.
    So in reference to your reports. Presenting what might an optimum system might look like.
    Solution one– the best
    Solution two–what is possible
    and a solution three this is what can be accomplished with moderate investment, which is normally recommendation.
    Another issue is process, I know in St. Louis discussion of planning decisions is minimal. What you offer is opening up a public dialogue, this is why an ideal solution is good. St.. Louis has a poor public process, basically offering pubic hearings after everything is already figured out.
    A good book on process and design is David Pass, MIT press (1973) Vallingby and Farsta about building suburbs outside Stockholm.
    I also wonder about the formation of public spaces, squares, plazas and so on using the transit and the pedestrian approach. These areas become commercial centers by virtue of the transit connections. St Louis has numerous opportunities on its Northside, millions are supposed to be invested.
    Even in dense cities these opportunities for public space can be found.
    You are what St. Louis needs, a dialogue about how regional transit is approached and resolved.
    I like your presentations, just a few random comments. Thanks for listening.


  2. Fbfree May 6, 2016 at 5:29 am #

    “However I think what would be great if you offered an optimum solution also.”

    I think the adage ‘teach a man to fish’ applies here. The service being provided to these cities is to get a knowledgeable conversation about transit. Presenting a best solution circumvents that process and discourages local citizens and decision makers from thinking about how transit should work in their cities.

    • Greg Michaud May 8, 2016 at 3:40 pm #

      You’re kidding right? Are you really saying if new urban visions were presented it would discourage conversation?. That’s a new one. Architectural competitions are used frequently, not only for individual buildings, but also urban scale projects for the sole purpose of generating new ideas and solutions for consideration.
      Members of the public cannot have the mastery of urban transportation that is Mr. Walkers knowledge. This is especially true if you are talking about large scale projects. However the public can react to and present alternates to specific proposals.
      Ideas of optimum approaches may be more conceptual or in form of idea sketches rather than specifics. .A person like Mr Walker in a far better position to offer those alternatives than your average citizen and politician.
      The other point is the public may actually buy into grand plans, but it is impossible to know if incremental offerings are all they see.
      Please note I emphasis the inclusion of the public in the process.
      It is mind boggling that you think offering a best solution impedes and obstructs any city The notion that new ideas will restrict conversation is completely backwards from reality.

  3. R. W. Rynerson May 7, 2016 at 10:07 pm #

    In 1963, U.S. Grant High in Portland, Oregon had exactly two library books that dealt with urban transport issues: Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece and Wilfred Owens’ ‘The Metropolitan Transportation Problem’. The latter was sponsored by the Brookings Institute and was sort of Northeast Corridor-oriented, but had some useful technical information.

    I knew about Jane Jacobs by reading the ‘Village Voice’ and intermittently scanning the ‘Herald-Tribune’ — and of course knew of Robert Moses due to his Portland freeway plan — but might have gotten no further than that if it were not for some alert librarian. When I read Jacobs’ work, it clicked with what I was seeing in Portland and that was so different than what the professional planners and engineers of the time were telling us in community meetings and public hearings. The only professionals in those days who seemed to ‘get it’ were some architects. I believe that many in that generation had been to Europe in WWII or the Occupation.

    One problem now is that as with the Bible, there is some cherry-picking of her ideas to support preconceived projects. In Denver, I’ve had some people condescendingly paraphrase quotes from her that made me wonder if the person had actually read her work. And, I can point to specific projects that are going to create some of the same issues that she spotted, despite their New Urbanist facades..

  4. W. K. Lis May 8, 2016 at 3:29 pm #

    Wonder why there isn’t a Robert Moses Walk, I mean Robert Moses Drive?

  5. Mike May 13, 2016 at 3:14 pm #

    I agree with Greg Michaud that an ideal situation should be presented. By always pushing cities to choose between ridership and coverage, Jarrett is giving cities an excuse to not invest in public transit funding.

    For example, when Jarrett presented in Edmonton. Instead of just showing the city how they could cut bus service to whole areas to invest in other areas. He should have also presented an ideal situation which preserved the good base level service to all neighborhoods, while instituting a high frequency network.

    • Jarrett June 2, 2016 at 7:34 am #

      Mike. I believe it’s not the role of consultants to make elected officials’ value judgments for them, nor to conceal the actual choices that communities need to think about. The ridership-coverage tradeoff isn’t a reason not to fund transit; it’s a way to tie transit funding more directly to measurable outcomes.