The Death and Life at 50

Portrait of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

The article first appeared in The Globe and Mail on May 7, 2011

Jane Jacobs’ first book is debated, dissected, deified and despised. But 15 months before her death, she sounded disappointed over its limited impact

By STEPHEN WICKENS

If you’re like me, calls out of the blue from the great thinkers of the age come as a surprise.

But Jane Jacobs, celebrated author of books on urbanism, economics and philosophy, phoned The Globe and Mail one afternoon in early 2005, asking questions about a seemingly minor point in a feature I’d written.

Census data showed that some of Toronto’s densest wards had low percentages of people living in buildings of five or more storeys, while several wards with the greatest proportions of high-rise residents were among the least dense.

“That’s a real nugget,” she said, adding that, “for a web of reasons,” lot sizes and building heights often matter less to density than the amount of land used for driving and parking. “This is important.”

Ms. Jacobs was 88, had 15 months to live and her final book, Dark Age Ahead, was behind her. But 44 years after publication of her once-revolutionary treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she was still seeking “nuggets” to help explain cities as “problems of organized complexity”.

It was a mission till the end and she sounded as if she feared cities and The Death and Life might never be widely enough understood. She expressed concern, in part, because media, even the venerated print institutions, were increasingly opting for the simplistic.

And that was back before anyone had heard of Twitter.

WALKING AND TALKING

This weekend, in an example of old-style social networking, groups of people in 16 countries will honour Ms. Jacobs’s ideas by walking and talking. There were just 27 Jane’s Walks in the first year, 2007, all in Toronto. It would undoubtedly please her that nearly 500 are registered for 2011, with 36 Canadian cities hosting 397 walks.

“People close to her felt she wouldn’t want a monument or her name on a park,” says Jane Farrow, a former CBC broadcaster and pedestrian activist hired to run the Jane’s Walks program. “The sense was it would be more fitting to get people out walking, connecting with neighbourhoods, discussing her ideas.”

Not that Ms. Jacob’s ideas appear likely to slide into obscurity.

This spring sees two new books of essays, Reconsidering Jane Jacobs and What We See. The latter is laudatory; the former has already upset Jacobs fans even though it won’t be published till June.

Urban designer and longtime Jacobs friend Ken Greenberg’s overtly Jacobsian Walking Home comes out this month. In September, Random House will release a 50th anniversary edition of The D&L, which still sells well in 15 languages. Calls are out for academic papers tied to the anniversary and HafenCity University in Hamburg, Germany, will host a “Queen Jane Jacobs” conference next week.

At least three major books last year dealt extensively with her ideas, including Makeshift Metropolis by Canadian-raised architect and author Witold Rybczynski of the University of Pennsylvania, Triumph of the City by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and The Battle for Gotham, by New York-based critic Roberta Brandes Gratz.

‘NICE WORDS’

Ms. Jacobs had no time for ideology – left, right or whatever. Though warm and generous, she guarded her time and didn’t suffer fools. She seemed to be without ego and she hated it when reporters called her an “urban guru.” A mildly reverential comment about The Death and Life in our January 2005 conversation seemed to wind her up.

“Oh come on, I’m weary of the praise,” she said.

Then, pausing repeatedly to formulate thoughts, she unloaded. “Nice words from politicians, planners and columnists hardly matter when we continually repeat mistakes we made decades ago. It’s like we made some progress then hit a wall. Many places still have zoning laws on the books ensuring we repeat the mistakes. The bureaucratic machinery enforces bad planning and design, and nobody thinks to question a property tax system that encourages sprawl and all its hidden costs.”

She felt many who invoke her name “cherry-pick ideas to suit their purposes.” That planners eventually came to accept the benefits of high densities was no consolation. “In the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble,” she said. “Few people take the time to understand what mixed primary uses means; most overlook the importance of short blocks.”

“Maybe you kinda blew it,” I replied, mostly in jest. “You buried a crucial part of your thesis on page 150. Lots of people in power who need to read The Death and Life probably don’t reach page 150.”

She laughed, triggering a scary sounding coughing fit. When it was apparent she’d live, her first words were: “I know what you’re getting at, but I wouldn’t have written it any other way.”

Her longtime editor, Jason Epstein, would back her. He still says, “There was nothing to edit.”

Maybe. But many feel it’s crucial for all the world’s urbanites to understand The Death and Life, even if more than a few conclude the book is flawed. This might be trouble in an era of short attention spans.

REPEAT CUSTOMERS

Vancouver planning chief Brent Toderian, author James Howard Kunstler and former Toronto mayor John Sewell have read the book repeatedly. All understand Ms. Jacobs’s frustrations but seem more optimistic about the likely long-term legacy.

Mr. Toderian was introduced to The D&L through a first-year city-planning course at the University of Waterloo.

“Incredibly, it wasn’t a prerequisite, which I still rail about to my alma mater,” he says. “There isn’t a person or book more influential in creating Vancouverism than Jane and The Death and Life. I’ve heard that through generations of my predecessors – from saying no to freeways in the 1960s to a counterintuitive approach to movement that allows congestion to be our friend.

“I know what she means about people misunderstanding density, that’s why we emphasize density done well rather than density as a mathematical exercise. People round the world praise Vancouver’s livability and she had a big hand in it.”

Mr. Kunstler, known for pithy, entertaining planning books, including 1993 bestseller The Geography of Nowhere, says we still develop badly, in part, because “changing the predictable rules of a very profitable game would be a political problem.” But because Ms. Jacobs’s ideas are timeless he expects acceptance to grow as urban crises erupt in coming decades. “She might not be fully appreciated until 2061, but nobody threw a cocktail party for Galileo in his time.”

Mr. Sewell calls the lip-service paid to Ms. Jacobs’s ideas “tragic.” “In Ontario, I’m aware of no provincial policies and no official plans that reflect some of the key points she raised.” But he sees hope in “the simplicity and applicability” of her approach. “What she’s saying is, forget the theories. If you want to make really good cities, go out and look for yourself at good parts of cities, places that feel right. Figure out why they work then replicate them.”

SMART HOUSEWIFE

The first sentence of The Death and Life is: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” It’s no surprise that some in the field counterattacked, citing her lack of credentials. Ridiculed as a “housewife,” Ms. Jacobs had taken a few university courses but never bothered to graduate. Undaunted, the amateur would later challenge key assumptions of classical economics in the first two books she published after moving with her family to Toronto from New York in 1968.

Mr. Rybczynski says she had gaping holes in her historical knowledge, overestimated the influence of planners and underestimated suburbia’s lure. “Not everyone wants 24-hour street life and, unlike Greenwich Village, most working-class districts are depressing. It’s no surprise people would want to get away from that.”

But he calls The Death and Life “the dominant book about planning of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps of the entire century.” He also writes that Ms. Jacobs’ ideas on density, short blocks and mixed uses were used successfully to create Reston, Va.

Mr. Glaeser says the most important idea behind The Death and Life is that “cities are what real people make of them;” cities are not buildings and infrastructure. “Her other themes, short blocks, the connections between buildings and the outside streets, mixed uses and density, are all fundamentally part of understanding what makes neighbourhoods work. The message has, by and large, gotten through in the planning community.”

But Mr. Glaeser also argues urban areas must get much denser for environmental and economic reasons and that healthy city cores are prohibitively expensive, in part, because Jacobs followers rule the day on preservation and height.

“She was too afraid of new buildings, too afraid of height and high density.”

Mr. Glaeser is a big Jacobs fan, but his comments have sparked debate. In a recent speech in Toronto, Ms. Brandes Gratz called some of his criticisms an “outrage,” while Mr. Sewell says Mr. Glaeser “has so misinterpreted Jane’s beliefs on density and tall buildings, it’s stunning.”

Mr. Glaeser vehemently stands by his words. He also says “I can’t help thinking she wouldn’t be pleased that the Greenwich Village of her day, which was affordable to ordinary New Yorkers, is a preserve of the ultra rich, where townhomes start at $5-million.”

Ms. Jacobs, however, felt affordability issues in gentrifying places backed her arguments about which neighbourhoods work.

“Until the car became a factor, we built primarily for pedestrians. “Those places are capable of self-regeneration.” she said in a later 2005 discussion, adding that costs soared because “we stopped building places worth gentrifying, so demand far and increasingly outstrips supply.”

FOUR CONDITIONS

There are countless intertwined concepts in The Death and Life and no room to explain “border vacuums” or “cataclysmic money” in a newspaper.

Page 150 lists four conditions needed “to generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts.” They are, in order: primary mixed uses that ensure people are outdoors on different schedules for different reasons; most blocks must be short; buildings must be of various ages; sufficient density.

Because we can’t have old buildings in all areas of rapidly growing metropolises, she felt mixed uses, short blocks and density are doubly important and that ensuring these newer areas accommodate various levels of income and commercial rents was indispensable.

Her comments about simplistic urban affairs journalism came with her defence of the book’s structure, including the buried thesis.

“Part of the reason cities are so poorly understood is that even newspapers are usually only capable of covering simple problems or problems of disorganized complexity.

“If you’ve read to the last chapter, you know cities — their parks, transportation planning, development policy, density ratios … are, like the life sciences, problems of organized complexity. It’s no good wishing it were any other way.”

I neglected to ask her if we need a special multimedia Death and Life, but Mr. Epstein, her longtime editor fears such a project would be superficial.

“Jane’s work is really a very subtle attempt to show how civilizations form, whether on the scale of neighbourhoods or eons. This would be hard to convey in a different format.”

Hard, yes, but it’s also no good wishing that new media applications won’t be essential The Death and Life’s afterlife. 

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