Earlier this month, in celebration of what would have been the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, people and organizations took to the web to glorify (and sometimes lament) the legacy this great urban thinker. Google even got in on the fun.
Jacobs added so many great ideas to our understanding of places and cities, and on occasions like these, it’s so tempting to reduce them to their most shareable form, to make idols, caricatures, and strawmen of her arguments. So while PPS believes strongly in spreading her insights as broadly as possible, we would like to echo a very Jacobsian caveat offered by Peter Laurence, author of Becoming Jane Jacobs, about the many uses, abuse, and criticisms of Jane Jacobs out there this month: These articles are no substitute for reading her books and making up your own mind.
Without further ado, here are five of the most interesting articles, debates, resources, and interviews from the week of Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday:
1. The Legacy and Life of a Great Urbanist
A collection of Jacobs tributes, in both word and image, curated by Curbed.
“Jane Jacobs is a historical figure, of course, but (…) she is now also an avatar, a figure onto which urban advocates project their desires for a different kind of dialogue, a different kind of planning, a different kind of hero. Many of us have a Jane in our imagination: a Jane who fights the power, a Jane who explains the city, a Jane who parents, a Jane who sings.” —Alexandra Lange on Jane Jacobs’ cultural afterlife, from the opera to Twitter
2. Relearning how to see place as part of urban economies
In The Guardian, economist Saskia Sassen recalls her first meeting with Jane Jacobs in the early 1990s, and asks which patterns and processes Jacobs would challenge us to see in today’s cities and urban economies.
“She helped us re-emphasise dimensions that were usually excluded—no, expelled—from general analyses of the urban economy. Indeed, I can imagine she would have affirmed without a quiver of doubt that, no matter how electronic and global the city might one day become, it still has to be “made”—and therein lies the importance of place.” —Saskia Sassen
3. Jane Jacobs and Bob Dylan
In The Globe and Mail, Jane Jacobs’ son Jim Jacobs shares some childhood memories while discussing “Jane at Home”—a week-long exhibition of photographs and personal items, which he co-curated and which took place at Urbanspace Gallery in Toronto—including an unexpected cameo from Bob Dylan.
“Jane needed a protest song for the fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway in New York. A friend of ours, Harry Jackson, an artist, had a folk singer sleeping on his floor. He sent Dylan around to the house. Jane helped him, telling him how a protest song was structured and how it worked. I think it was the first protest song he ever wrote.” —Jim Jacobs
4. Must We Sacrifice Community Control for Better Places?
One of the big debates that emerged online during the festivities was the supposed conflict between local community control and achieving the ideals of Jacobsian urban design—i.e. density, diversity, walkability. Janette Sadik-Khan and Seth Solomonow argue that “NIMBYs” now defend the very kinds of environments that Robert Moses created against new Jacobsian designs. Meanwhile, Nolan Gray and Jacobs’ colleague Lawrence Solomon argue that the right for communities to govern themselves is the most fundamental of Jacobs’ ideas. Here’s a taste of the opposing sides:
“We should honor Jacobs’s memory today by redesigning our cities as she might have. It’s not just a matter of livability or quality of life, but a long-term strategy for a denser urban future, one that is environmentally rational and economically vital.” —Janette Sadik-Khan & Seth Solomonow, in CityLab
“For all the love Jane Jacobs has received from urban planners and policymakers since her first book was published, her greatest theoretical innovation seems to be largely disregarded. Cities across the country continue to centrally plan the minutiae of urban life, from obsessively detailed land-use regulations to impossibly ambitious comprehensive plans.” —Nolan Gray, in Strong Towns
“Jane was anything but anti-development and anti-change […]. She saw government planners as too-often rigid freezers of development, and mocked regulations that prevented, for example, commercial activities in residential districts. She held strong views about what worked and what didn’t in cities—diverse neighbourhoods did, slum clearances didn’t—but had no desire for centrally planned solutions.” —Lawrence Solomon, in Financial Post
At PPS, we believe that community control and better design are a false dichotomy. Our current adversarial system gives communities the choice of NIMBYism or nothing. With the right tools, communities can be the drivers of progressive change.
5. Dark Age Ahead: Jane Jacobs Today
Although best known for her first two books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Economy of Cities, Jane Jacobs wrote many more up until her death in 2006. Both Peter Laurence and Richard Florida took the opportunity of her 100th birthday to examine the warnings in her final book, Dark Age Ahead. Although Jacobs was wary of predictions, she often made observations about the present that few others saw, which made her look like a seer in retrospect. For instance, when few were questioning the ever-growing bubble of the housing market, Jacobs already saw the inklings of the 2008 crash in Dark Age Ahead. Although imperfect, her final book is full of such cautions about our current times, as well as a healthy dose of hopeful new departures.
“At the very center of Jacobs’ work, I have come to believe, lies a great concern over the darker, more pessimistic forces of standardization, top-down planning, bureaucracy, and globalization that have acted against diversity and human progress.” —Richard Florida, in CityLab
“In order to become more like Jane Jacobs and help save our cities, if not our civilization, we should heed her warnings and fight our present-day enemies—which, as much as top-down forces, may include our own lack of vision, lack of action, and habits of behavior and thought.” —Peter Laurence, History News Network
Happy birthday, Jane!