Walking Home: Ken Greenberg On How Jane Jacobs Was Right (Book Review)

Jane Jacobs is in the news these days, thanks to Edward Glaeser's book Triumph of the City and his continuing attacks on her. He says she got it wrong, but he didn't know Jane Jacobs. Ken Greenberg, recipient of the 2010 American Institute of Architects Thomas Jefferson Award for public design excellence, and the 2010 Best of Green Urban Planner, knew Jane Jacobs, and has built an urban design career getting it right. He has recently written Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of A City Builder, a cross between autobiography and planning polemic.Ken also knew Peter Prangnell, who taught him architecture at Columbia and taught me at the University of Toronto, where Ken also came to teach. (they both hated my work). In writing this review, I have to disclose that our paths have crossed for almost forty years; in a previous life I even built the "beautiful new building" that he lives in.

Urban design is is a new profession, still trying to stake out a turf between the world of architects, who do buildings and are regulated by one set of laws, and planners, who have their own associations and bylaws and job descriptions. It is both and neither; is a complex melange of competing interests. Ken writes:

A whole new way of working on cities is materializing, and all the old arguments about who leads are becoming moot....Credit for city-scale design must now be spread broadly, and while this may frustrate the media's desire to fixate on individual "star designers", it is usually misleading to single out one team member.

Ken is being modest. He has been a key participant in so many important urban design transformations, from Toronto, his home base, to Cambridge, Mass, to Amsterdam and Caracas and more. One can single him out. He understands the importance of throwing out the old rulebooks:

As we prepare to hit the wall of peak oil, with "peak car" following closely on its heels, we'll have to change ho we get from place to place. Beyond the limit of oil supply, there is simply no more room for cars....the unhealthy consequences of a sedentary, car-dependent lifestyle are clear. Driving to the gym or health club is no substitute for walking as part of a daily routine.


Ken and Eti Greenberg in Victoria Memorial Park, Image Credit Spacing

It is a rare chapter that doesn't have homage to Jane Jacobs, whether it is Dark Age Ahead, when discussing sprawl, or The Economy of Cities or Cities and the Wealth of Nations, when discussing how cities are the principal generators of wealth. Ken notes that hard right wing politicians everywhere are anti-city and anti-rail, but that there is also an endemic distrust of city governments as being corrupt and shortsighted. But if we could get it all together.....

what might life in our cities look like if we aggressively filled in the obsolescent rail yards and port lands, cleaned and remediated their polluted soils and built denser, more walkable neighbourhoods? What if we were able to move toward zero carbon footprint communities and even "net plus" energy by creating energy from our waste and from renewable sources where we live and work?...many of us will still be using cars, but perhaps not vehicles we own. And we would likely get round using a greater choice of methods, including more walking, cycling or transit. Our living spaces might be smaller, but that would be compensated by a greater variety of public spaces, amenities and necessities close to hand, so we will likely spend less time in our own private spaces anyway.

Edward Glaeser writes in the the New Republic that "An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low." In fact, Greenberg presents the opposite; that a city design around Jacobsean principles would be a greener, more diverse and more beautiful place. It's not about master builders, but about people working together- "a strong, deep culture of the city with a widely shared web of relationships, a deep bench of committed city champions and a long collective memory."

Fifty years after the publishing of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Ken Greenberg has shown how we can learn from Jane Jacobs and put her ideas into practice. He proves that, contrary to the current meme, Jane Jacobs was right.

Tags: Toronto