Great Urban Mashup: See Cities As Jane Jacobs Did

Sometimes the biggest frustration for those of us craving green, healthy, and vibrant cities, is how slow progress can appear, and how seemingly huge the task. To be reminded of the what really makes cities thrive and be alive, pick up What We See - rather than a tribute to renowned urban thinker Jane Jacobs, this book keeps in motion a conversation Jacobs started back in 1961 with her seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The 30 essays in What We See show the expanding extent of Jacobs' legacy and also offer hope that while there will always be more to do, the dance of competing cultures and ideas in cities that Jacobs called "ballet of the streets" is alive and well, and possibly poised to be greener than ever.Urban Streets Mashup
In What We See, 30 essayists try to make sense of their own cities or situations in light of what Jacobs' observed in Death and Life and her other books and writings. Toronto's attempts to become a mature city while dodging the desires of developers that are, in Jacob's words: "impressed with mediocrity if it's very very big and expensive," is covered in Deanne Taylor's "Between Utopias" essay that starts the book.

One trend that Jacobs chronicled in her work was the tendency in the U.S. and Canada to build "garden cities" based on ideas from Ebenezer Howard and others, a tendency that pretty much tried to kill the sidewalk as one of the main live conduits of city life. The fact that Jacobs, who died in 2006, didn't get to see the revitalization of the sidewalk in many cities - New York is one of the most vivid examples - is covered in Ray Suarez' essay "Jane Jacobs and the Battle for the Street." While the complete streets concept in the U.S. is sometimes given short shrift in city councils' planning, the very fact of its existence is hopeful, and demonstrates that in the U.S. we are engaged in rethinking what city street life means.

The essays in What We See remind us that cities are inefficient, but in a good, necessary way, that they exist to allow inhabitants to pursue a wide range of dreams and goals, that they are complex and can be seemingly poised on the edge of chaos between the yin and yang of "I" the individual and "We" the body of citizens.

In "Nine Ways of Looking at Ourselves" author Arlene Goldbard gives us nine tools she thinks we all could use in order to mimic Jacobs' fruitful way of looking at urban landscapes. These include seeing with "a wide lens"; seeing with an uncultivated, or open mind; and seeing with the lens of "no theory" which is in essence another way of saying seeing without preconceived constraints.

Because Jacobs herself lived 37 years in Toronto, where she moved from New York in 1969, many of the essayists in What We See devote their spaces to talking about Toronto's challenges and triumphs. Jacobs championed the idea or "organized complexity" of cities - similar to that of natural ecosystems. She never had a pat formula for making or remaking cities - rather she had a way of thinking, or a way of seeing that rejected the prescriptions for urban renewal that were so popular with planners post World War II and focused instead on adding in to cities certain elements that would encourage diversity and propserity.

To a certain degree, according to essayist David Crombie in "The Toronto Experience" Toronto has succeeded in the time since Jacobs moved there in building stronger neighborhoods, lots of downtown housing, and eschewing new downtown roads in favor of public transport and bike path improvements.

But another of Jacobs' ideas that may be of great interest to those of us hoping or actively working towards greener more sustainable urban areas is that of cities building their economies in the "import-replacing" process, described by Richard Register in his essay "Jane Jacobs Basics." Import replacing is how a city uses its nearby resource base instead of imports - how nature delivers the resources to a city and the city reciprocates by providing support for nature to flourish. Register believes that New Urbanists are moving in the direction of ecocities because of their focus on density and transit modes. So far, he says, planned ecocities in China and Abu Dhabi haven't gone far enough to spur the pedestrian environments Jacobs has always seen as central to that organized complexity of city life she heralds.

Jeanette Sadik Khan, who pens the book's essay "Think of A City and What Comes to Mind? Its Streets" would likely agree. Sadik-Khan sees Jacobs' vision epitomized in New York City's "Sustainable Streets" strategic plan. Jacobs' wrote Death and Life based on her experiences as an activist against planned highway and streets projects supported by Robert Moses, and though it has been nearly 50 years since her book was published, it is clear from What We See that in many ways her legacy is only now gaining concerted strength in city planning.

In the book's closing essay, "Jane's Cup of Tea" author Mary Rowe adds many personal details about Jacobs, but at the same time reinforces Jacobs' primary characteristics as an urban thinker - a willingness to keeping seeing in cities what others might have missed, and a "ruthlessly rigorous" approach to forming her opinions and ideas. It is helpful to the green movement to remember that Jacobs didn't advocate to recreate in new what is old, as some city plans try to, but rather to use the old that is in cities and add on in innovative ways.

Read more about Jane Jacobs and new urbanism at TreeHugger:
Cities Need More Jane Jacobs, Less Marc Jacobs
Air Conditioning and Urbanism
Ecocities of Tomorrow: An Interview With Richard Register

Tags: Cities | Transportation | Urban Life

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