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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Jane Jacobs shocked the world, 50 years ago.

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Good God, Jane Jacobs’ key book, The Death ond Life of Great American Cities turns fifty this month.

Anthony Flint wrote a great column about her in Grist – any body interested in what makes Jane Jacobs so special should go there.  But here are some quotes, just to give the idea:

The story of how Jacobs came to write Death and Life reads like a movie script. A housewife from Scranton with no college degree, she came to New York City, fell in love with its old neighborhoods, and worked her way from secretary to editor and writer at several magazines. She was content in her life on Hudson Street until she learned of a plan by New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, to put a roadway through Washington Square Park, where she took her children.

She went on to organise protests and do the impossible: defeat Robert Moses, and stop a highway from destroying her beloved neighbourhood.  Imagine New York nowadays without Greenwich Village.  Armed with a grant from the Rockefeller foundation, she then summarized her thoughts in The Death and Life.

The book was a shock to the status quo, similar to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. And it gave power to the people. A fundamental theme was that ordinary citizens were not being consulted about the very communities they lived in. The planning was going on entirely behind closed doors. In taking on Moses, Jacobs rallied New Yorkers to fight City Hall, storm planning hearings, gather signatures for petitions, and organize protests.

A half-century later, the concepts of mixed-use, moderately dense, walkable urban environments are uniformly embraced by the planning professions, and by the movements of New Urbanism and smart growth. Yet the legacy of Jane Jacobs and this remarkable treatise is decidedly mixed. Today, she is invoked in campaigns to stop the very kind of urban development she advocated.

Yet, at least in environmental circles, hers is not a household name as, say, Rachel Carson’s is.  But she deserves to be.  Without her, the very concept of livable cities may have taken years to emerge, and environmentalism would still be saddled with the romantic notion that only wilderness matters – and would be far less effective for it.  And, for that matter, without her work there would be a highway running through downtown Vancouver, no Chinatown, and much worse sprawl.

For all that, The Life and Death can be a bit of a slog at times.  The paperback issue runs at 448 pages of small print.  For every brilliant insight discovered in her pages, a reader not familiar with her legacy may wonder whether it`s worth plowing through endless descriptions of wrong-headed zoning and red-lining practices that are now obsolete.  But they are obsolete thanks in large part to that very book – it`s worth the effort.

But someone who is looking for the big picture may do well with books about Jacobs.  There are several.  The two I have read are Anthony Flint`s 2009 Wrestling with Moses, which focuses on the New York fight with the “master builder” that rightly made her fame; it`s a concise, wonderful read that paint both the struggle and the era, in particular in its depiction of the aristocratic Moses, whose impact on the city was not wholly negative and whose life story, in itself, is well worth reading.  The other is Alice Sparberg Alexiou`s 2006 biography, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary.  It includes Jacobs` Toronto period, where she was instrumental in stopping the Spadina Expressway after moving there to prevent her sons from being drafted in the Vietnam war.  (The positive impact that that war had on Canada by bringing us countless smart Americans cannot be overstated.)

Some later books by Jacobs make for better reading that The Life and Death, I think, because they better reveal Jacobs as the fresh thinker she was.  The concepts first stated in Life and Death (compact walkable neighbourhoods, eyes on the street, etc) are now so common place that it is easy to forget how revolutionary they were.  But the ideas of The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, for instance, are as fresh and revolutionary as ever.  Jacobs focuses on the central role of cities as economic centres (dismissing the idea of national economies as irrelevant) and challenges common concepts about urban history.  History textbooks repeat that cities came into being as agricultural centres (agriculture created surpluses, enabling the growth of an urban class with soldiers, priests and artists, etc).  Not so, claims Jacobs: cities came first, as trading centres; populations and agriculture followed.

Is she right?  Maybe – I have no idea.  What I love is how she has compunction about challenging authority, of any kind.  She was called an uppity young lady; then a ignorant housewife; then a crotchety old woman.  She`s a hell of a role model.

Great books, anytime.  But especially good Christmas gifts for budding environmentalists of any age or gender – just to be inspired by someone who always questioned authority and had an extraordinary nose for bullshit.

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Written by enviropaul

November 16, 2011 at 3:52 pm

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