The Death and Life of a Great Canadian Street

Danforth and Woodbine, looking west on Sept. 16, 2014, 98 year and 51 weeks after the photo below right, Woodbine and Danforth has changed plenty. And after about 60 years in decline, the area is getting new investment and is clearly on the way back.

Danforth and Woodbine, looking west on Sept. 16, 2014, 98 years and 51 weeks after the photo below right. After about 60 years in decline, the area and this intersection are getting new investment and they are clearly on the way back.

Urbanist Jane Jacobs may never have written about the East Danforth, but after a few long walks on a Toronto strip that was in decline for much of the latter 20th century, she developed firm views on what is needed for revitalization.

Danforth and Woodbine looking west, Sept. 22, 1915, with the new streetcar tracks and actual paving. (City of Toronto Archives photo)

Danforth and Woodbine looking west, Sept. 22, 1915, with the new streetcar tracks and actual paving. (City of Toronto Archives photo)

By STEPHEN WICKENS

When the writing wasn’t going smoothly, Jane Jacobs would take a long walk. During one stretch of gorgeous fall weather in the early 1980s, with writer’s block delaying progress on Cities and The Wealth of Nations, the renowned author of books on urbanism, economics and ethics visited the Danforth “three or four times … the whole strip from Broadview to Victoria Park,” with several detours to the nearby rail corridor and the surrounding streets.

She never wrote about those Danforth jaunts but she spoke with me about the area in 2004 and 2005, while I was both writing Toronto features for The Globe and Mail, and working with people attempting to start a neighbourhood group (prior to the eventual and  successful establishment of the Danforth East Community Association).

Watercolour of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

Watercolour of Jane Jacobs by Hilary Forrest

Though she was nearly 90, Jacobs’s memory was excellent. I was raised in the east end and live in the immediate area. I walk a lot, too. She visited a few times – decades earlier – yet what she said helped open my eyes.

In one discussion, she bristled and became animated when I mentioned the usual received wisdom, that the East Danforth’s seemingly mysterious decline in the second half of the 20th century was likely a result of transportation changes, most notably the replacement of streetcar service with the Bloor-Danforth subway in 1966 to Woodbine, and 1968 farther east. It is an enduring theory, given legs within weeks of the subway’s opening as media latched onto attempts by the area’s “business men’s association” and locals to restore some form of street-based local transit, either streetcars or buses, that would run parallel to the subway using existing, frequently spaced stops. The group produced a 15,000-signature petition (huge numbers for a small area in the pre-social media days), but the pleas were ignored at the Toronto Transit Commission.

Jacobs said far too much weight had been given to the arrival of the subway, and called it a ‘lazy man’s theory.’ She agreed that underground subway stations – spaced much farther apart than the old streetcar stops – sped the processes that were sucking life off the street (better planning for second station entrances could have helped a bit, in her view). But she argued that commercial strips of blue-collar neighbourhoods had gone into similar declines during the same era, “all over Toronto, the continent, even the planet – and almost none of these other strips would have had new subways.” Commercials streets, an essential component of urbanism for millennia had been deemed obsolete in theory and practice.

The larger transportation-related factors in her view were that car ownership was soaring in the post-World War II era, and that people were suddenly traveling farther to shop – to malls and bigger stores where parking was easier. People also became increasingly less likely to leave home on foot, and whole neighbourhoods and cities suffered as a result.

“Transportation matters to the discussion, to be sure,” she said. “But if you’re serious about revitalizing this street, you’ll focus on broader changes to the overall local economy, and you’ll look for adjustments to form that will naturally attract pedestrians for day-in day-out reasons.”

Among the things that first struck Jacobs on her walks, especially east of Pape where the nature of the street changes suddenly and considerably, was the near complete lack of Victorian or Edwardian buildings. She also found a sudden increase in the lengths of the blocks (see No. 2 in her seminal list of conditions for generating diversity).

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Jane Jacobs’s four conditions to generate diversity and vibrant city streets, from the The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Page 150:

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two.  These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce.  This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there.  This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

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She advised me to compare the block lengths east and west of Pape on a map. “Better still, walk and time them if you have the opportunity,” she said.

It turns out that most blocks on both the north and south sides of Danforth west of Pape, the much livelier Greektown neighbourhood, are no more than 100 metres and can be walked in a minute or less. Many to the east take two minutes or more. When we touched on this in a subsequent discussion she said I would probably remember for the rest of my life that blocks in the liveliest places in cities all over the world will tend to be well under two minutes in length at my pace (try this yourself, no matter where you live or where you’re visiting). “Two-hundred and fifty or 300 feet is ideal in most cases.” (That’s 76 to 91 metres.)

But Condition No. 1 on her list, The East Danforth’s mix of primary uses, would in her view matter most to people puzzling over how to reinvigorate the area (the emphasis on the word primary was hers).  She felt strongly that if redevelopments merely added residential condos with retail on the ground floor, we wouldn’t be adding the type of real and effective mixed use that could have a major regenerative effect on the strip.  We might merely be adding to the number of empty stores, was her view. And she warned that many “seemingly enlightened planners still tend to have a superficial understanding of what mixed primary use really means.”

Jacobs suggested I go to the Central Reference Library and use city directories and old maps as an introduction to the timeline of Danforth East’s development. Correctly, as it turned out, she told me to expect that the area was first developed largely in the 1920s, a point she said meant this was in fact a hybrid, not the pure streetcar suburb that some academics would label it. Private cars would have been a factor from the beginning, certainly east of Pape, even if the area had still developed largely around a main street on which streetcars arrived in 1915. She told me to look for evidence the area developed with a significant amount of employment, mostly industrial and most of it likely focused on the rail corridor to the south.

And it was there.

Prior to the area’s initial development, but well into the 20th century, lands on both sides of the East Danforth were largely operating as market gardens, providing fresh produce to the nearby city. Farming operations got larger farther north, toward the Taylor Creek valley, with several dairy operations in what was the Township of (and later the Borough of) East York, amalgamated into Toronto in 1998. Most of the area immediately north of Danforth had been Church of England reserves, known as the Glebe and usually leased to farmers. South of the Danforth (east of Greenwood and over to the town of East Toronto at Main Street), was known as Upper Midway, part of the Midway area annexed to the city in 1909. It was very rural compared with the main parts of Midway, south of the tracks, and it appeared as a virtual blank on maps as late as 1907.

Jacobs asked me to come up with a plausible explanation for the delay in development until after World War I, especially since areas farther from established Toronto had developed sooner (around the Grand Trunk/Canadian National station and yards at Main Street). I’m open to arguments, but it seems probable that the biggest delaying factor was that, east of Pape, five creeks crossed the Danforth (a.k.a. The Second Concession and later The King’s Highway No. 5). The railway tracks had also established themselves as a barrier. Though the tracks had brought the Town of East Toronto to life, the corridor barrier itself would increasingly become a drag on the area in the later 20th century, especially as it got closer to the Danforth heading east and as industry that once provided jobs in the area moved out to the suburbs.

Though the Danforth (originally the Don and Danforth Plank Road) had opened in 1851, the imposition of a concession grid, forced the street to follow a predetermined straight line, despite ravines and marshy areas that would not have been apparent in the kingdom’s Colonial Office in the 1790s. The road’s path was set decades before surveyors arrived. The Danforth was a nightmare to maintain (a job left largely to the farmers who used it and paid tolls — a source of protests and legal disputes). The rickety wooden bridges often got washed out. And even when they weren’t, travelers to the city still had to get to down to Queen, Gerrard or Winchester streets to cross the Don Valley.

Rickety wooden bridges on the east Danforth often washed out in storms. City of Toronto Archives photo

Rickety wooden bridges on the east Danforth often washed out in storms. City of Toronto Archives photo

Even though streetcar service and proper paving came to the East Danforth in 1915, development didn’t happen until a housing shortage after the Great War and the opening of the Prince Edward Viaduct in 1919. Something that also held up residential development in the immediate Coxwell-Danforth area was a stench from the Harris abattoir and rendering plant, which was eventually driven away in the early 1920s (and though this is also a clear instance where employment and residential don’t work in close proximity, even the Harris plant attracted a small enclave of residents using kit housing just southwest of Danforth and Coxwell).

In the city directories, Jacobs suggested I look for trends related to the stores that sprang up: Aside from the fact that many merchants lived upstairs from their businesses, the most stunning thing was the lack of turnover. Vacancies were listed when buildings were new in the 1920s, but were almost non-existent again until the late 1950s. There was very little turnover among businesses through the Great Depression, 1940s and early ’50s, indicating a healthy local business conditions despite great challenges facing the global macro-economies. Even when Woolworth moved from east of Woodbine to snuggle up next to department store rival Kresge in 1942, displaced shops found ways to stick around — some at Woolworth’s old site.

The variety of shops, especially close to Woodbine was remarkable. Though supermarkets in the 1950s were much smaller with limited offerings, there were nine of the Loblaws, A&P and Dominion variety from Greenwood to just east of Woodbine), as well as butchers, bakers and produce shops. There were also many clothing and shoe stores, and the three movie theatres would have contributed to sidewalk life in the evenings.

These were all things Jacobs expected me to find, and she said it was important to note that the turnover and vacancies started appearing well before any subway construction began, even if locals didn’t really pay attention to the strip’s decline till later. Some feared the subway would bring over-development, yet the opposite happened, and many are still astonished by the lack of development more than 50 years after the subway opened.

There is also a strong likelihood that plans for an extension of the Gardiner Expressway into Scarborough, through the neighbourhoods straddling the railway tracks, hung over the local real estate market in the 1960s and ’70s. Hundreds of homes were to be expropriated just for the interchange at Woodbine, not far south of the Danforth.

The Ford of Canada main assembly plant became Shopper's World mall after the company moved operations to Oakville. The loss of jobs and the shift of stores from the street were "a double whammy" for the neighbourhood.

The main Ford of Canada assembly plant became Shopper’s World mall after the company moved operations to Oakville in the 1950s. The loss of jobs and the shift of stores from the street were “a double whammy” for the neighbourhood. PHOTO COURTESY FORD OF CANADA

As for industry and employment, there wasn’t so much right on the Danforth itself, though it’s worth noting that Canada Bread had its main Toronto plant just east of Greenwood (and the folks at the Linsmore Tavern said the plant workers kept them very busy on breaks and shift changes). Ford of Canada, before moving to Oakville in the 1950s, had its main operations at what, in 1962, became the Shopper’s World Mall, west of Victoria Park, right by the eastern loop of the streetcar line on a small strip where East York actually reached down to the Danforth.

Jacobs called the loss of that employment and the fact that some Danforth stores moved to the mall in the early 1960s a “double whammy” for the strip. Car dealerships and the TTC streetcar barns at Coxwell (now only partly used, and mostly as parking for subway staff) also brought lots of workers to the neighbourhood or provided jobs that local residents could walk to. And, of course, lots of people working in the area provided essential daily business for local shops and restaurants. Along the rail corridor, less than a half-kilometre to the south, were major industrial enterprises, including a John Wood plant on Hanson Street, the largest source of hot water tanks in Canada from the 1920s on. Service Station Supply was an assembly plant for gas pumps and hydraulic lifts. There was a factory producing stoves, washers and fridges. There were many light industrial operations as well as quarries and brickyards on either side of Greenwood.  Major suppliers of coal, lumber and other building materials were located all along the tracks from Greenwood to east of Main, where the CNR shops and freight yards began.

Jacobs wanted me to see that, while many preferred to drive out from of our neighbourhood the noise and trucks that increasingly accompanied industry, the shift to an overwhelmingly residential area quietly undercut many facets of the local economy, including the shops and restaurants on the Danforth. The loss of industry meant the rail corridor bordering the southern parts of the neighbourhood shifted from attracting much economic activity to the East Danforth to being a barrier and a drag on the area, a hindrance to walkability.

Late in the 20th century, even though household sizes got smaller, in pure residential terms the neighbourhood actually got denser because housing was built on former industrial land. But the mix of primary uses – usually residential and employment, with a few specialty shops or large theatres that can draw people from other parts of town – was getting badly depleted.

Looking forward, she said: “Residential density itself won’t be enough of an answer if you really want to create or recreate a vibrant neighbourhood,” she said, adding that residential density by itself, especially if it becomes high-rise, high-density could be a big problem if we don’t pay attention to all the generators of diversity.

On that count, she said the options are limited. There might be small gains to be had by breaking up some long blocks, but the new passageways or streets would almost certainly never penetrate more than a block or two into the surrounding neighbourhoods. Creating a deep inventory of buildings of different ages is a long-term organic process; the key would be to ensure that the 1915 TTC barns and much of the 1920s buildings be saved (likely not a problem with the fragmented ownership and often shallow lots). Density increases, especially right on the Danforth would be helpful, but we might need less than many think, especially if significant employment is included.

“There’s opportunity in bringing employment to sites at the subway stations,” she said (and she agreed that the TTC lands and some north-side parking at Coxwell and the Valumart parking lot at Woodbine are probably our only significant options for bringing mid-rise office buildings into the local mix. (Our discussion didn’t consider areas as far east as Shopper’s World, but clearly, there’s redevelpment potential there).

The five-acre TTC lands at Danforth and Coxwell were used as a bus garage when Jane Jacobs studied the strip. These days much of the site is used, ironically, to provide free parking to transit workers.

The five-acre TTC lands at Coxwell were used as a bus garage when Jane Jacobs studied the strip. These days much of the site is used, ironically, to provide free parking to transit workers. Shockingly for many, it’s larger than the Honest Ed’s site set for redevelopment.

She added that we were lucky to be approaching things at this time (she was speaking in 2004) because much of the GTA’s employment gains are likely to be in office work, and that even just a few mid-rise office buildings near the stations might bring enough workers to help “rebalance the local economy.”

Though she died in early 2006, Jacobs lived long enough to see a resurgence of life  downtown when usage restrictions were lifted on “The Kings,” and when a new wave of residential development was able to complement the dense employment zones, allowing secondary-use shops and services to come back in the core. She saw it as encouraging.

Returning employment to the Danforth area could, in her view, have a similar effect (though on a much smaller scale) by getting more people out onto the sidewalks for different reasons at different times of the day, helping lots of small shops and restaurants to “get over the hump … it often takes just a handful of extra customers a day to make a difference in small-scale retail.”

She emphasized that year-round walkability relies heavily on people having regular economic reasons to be out on the local sidewalks. “You won’t get industry again, and few would tolerate it, but office work and some new residential density right on the Danforth could be great for the city and your area.” She felt the Avenues focus in the city’s Official Plan could be life-giving for the East Danforth.

She also noted that the Danforth has spare subway capacity in what transportation people call the ‘contra-flow,’ – half-full trains going in the opposite direction of the main rush-hour crowds. She called that “untapped potential.” She remembered surface parking near some of the subway stations and called that  “a waste of potential.”

“This may come as a surprise to you,” she said, “but part of the area’s empty-store problem is that there’s too much retail space for the current size and makeup of the local economy. Most of that retail is going to be secondary-use stuff.”

Demand for the retail space on a strip such as the Danforth, in her view, was very much a reflection of the health and diversity (or lack thereof) in the wider local economy. It’s almost certain that she would have been a huge supporter of DECA’s pop-up shop program. She  said: “Vacant storefronts certainly feed vicious cycles of decline, but if you’re smart, long-term, you’ll view them (and street crime) as mere symptoms of bigger problems.”

Anyway, it’s a gorgeous September day and signs of new life have been popping up on the East Danforth for nearly a decade now. Even though the writer’s block isn’t necessarily holding me back, I think I’ll go for a walk.

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Stephen Wickens is a journalist and a former board member of Danforth East Community Association. At present he leads DECA’s Visioning committee. Much of the material gathered from talks with Jane Jacobs (directly and indirectly) forms the basis of an annual Jane’s Walk, ‘The Death and Life of Upper Midway.’

 

An award the Accra Beach should share with its Barbadian neighbours

I and at least two others within a bun’s toss were pleased to see the Accra Beach Hotel honoured at the closing banquet of a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Guyana.

The official wording of the press release said “the Sustainable Accommodation Award went to the Accra Beach Hotel and Spa in Barbados for positively impacting the local supply chain and community whilst minimizing negative environmental impact, and contributing to conservation of local culture.”

I’m trying to learn more about what this all means and I have emails out to CTO staff. But as a travel journalist who also writes about urbanism, it’s great to see the CTO’s 13th annual Sustainable Tourism Conference recognize that walkable, vibrant communities are just as important to vacation spots as they are in our home cities.

On a basic level, my wife and I had a great stay at Accra Beach a few months back. The price was reasonable, our room and the beach were excellent, staff were friendly and, as a bonus for active people who like to swim lengths, the pool was among the best I’ve found in the Caribbean.

But Accra and the Rockley Beach area proved to be special because the resort is so well integrated within a thriving stretch of shops, services and restaurants patronized by both locals and tourists. This is a case where tourists are really strengthening the local economy and where the local businesses are really contributing to the tourism experience.

The virtuous cycle has benefits beyond the bottom lines of business. All day and into the evening there are eyes on the street and feet on the sidewalks, as urbanist Jane Jacobs would have pointed out. This is probably not a place where a mugger would want to ply his trade and the pedestrian instinctively senses that.

This mingling of locals and tourists adds much to a vacation experience on a human level. And when vacationers feel safe out walking beyond their hotels, they don’t need to rent cars or take cabs anywhere near as often.

Contrast that with the experience of an all-inclusive compound or a resort on a lovely but isolated stretch of beach.

When we talk of sustainable travel, we often hear about initiatives to protect rainforests or minimize waste from cruise ships. We talk of finding ways to offset the carbon emissions of jets or make solar and wind power viable for resorts and their small island countries. These are all good and important subjects. But on the south coast of Barbados, something as simple as a comfortable environment for pedestrian interaction illustrates sustainability and environmentalism at its organic best.

Cheers, to the Accra Beach, but please share this honour with your many neighbours.

Short blocks go a long way toward explaining why some streets really work

No matter how impressive One Bloor condos might be, the obliteration of Roy's Square to make way for them will cost Toronto. //BriColeUrbanism photo, by way of Flickr.

This item was first posted at City Builder Book Club, where you’ll find lots of great posts about chapters from Jane Jacobs’s 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Visit and read, and get out and walk. Go on a Jane’s Walk http://citybuilderbookclub.org/2012/03/stephen-wickens-on-the-need-for-small-blocks/

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Apart from a brief post at Torontoist, the erasure of Roy’s Square for the 1 Bloor condos went unmourned. And two stops down the Yonge subway, the Aura condos rise, snuffing hopes of those who cared that a block of Hayter Street was shut in 1978.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been around 50 years and Jane Jacobs has been gone more than five, but ‘The need for short blocks’, the second of her four conditions indispensable for generating diversity, remains overlooked.

On Condition 4, density, converts abound, though understanding is often dangerously simplistic. It’s tough to gauge how we fare on No. 3, but mingling buildings of different ages is widely discussed. As for No. 1, land-use mixes, there has been progress, though it will remain limited till people really get the crucial differences between primary and secondary uses.

Short blocks, alas, tend to be viewed as insignificant if noticed at all. It’s no surprise that one-offs such as Roy’s Square are forgotten. But multiplied over a city or a metropolitan area, and the absence or loss of short blocks undercuts street life and economic viability. Implications are lasting and hard to correct.

Rudimentary maps of New York's West 80s help illustrate why increasing opportunities for pedestrians to turn corners increases the number of viable business locations.

In Chapter 9, “The Need For Small Blocks,” Jacobs combines common sense, basic observation and rudimentary maps of streets in Manhattan’s West 80s, between Central Park and Columbus Avenue, to illustrate how longer blocks isolate pedestrians, limiting their options and leaving many streets “stagnant backwaters.”

“The supply of feasible spots for commerce rises considerably” when street grids increase chances for pedestrians to turn corners. Even slight variations in sidewalk traffic will make or break nascent enterprises, so it’s easy to see how seemingly minor changes to street patterns trigger virtuous and vicious cycles.

The chapter, the book’s shortest at just nine pages, explains a mystery that baffled New Yorkers after street-deadening elevated rail lines were removed from 3rd Avenue and 6th Avenue. On the West Side, where the blocks were long, the move had little effect. On the East, with its short blocks, revitalization erupted.

Of course, cities are complex and organic, so it’s foolish to consider conditions in isolation, something Jacobs reminded me of in a 2005 discussion on block-length effects in Toronto.

Referring to the underperforming Sheppard subway, she decried local media’s fixation with the new residential density along the line. “A few tall buildings don’t constitute healthy urban form. Even near the stations, people aren’t walking in large numbers,” she said, pointing out that land uses remain separated and there aren’t enough primary uses attracting people.

Furthermore, because the area can’t provide a real mix of building ages for generations, she said it’s doubly essential the other diversity generators be present. “As long as the blocks are long, you can be sure the area will be off-putting for pedestrians and, for the most part, economically barren,” she said. “Density in the absence of short blocks is usually trouble.”

Regarding Danforth Avenue east of Pape, Jacobs indicated that those who noticed the area’s decline as car ownership grew and after subway replaced the streetcar in 1966, tend to overestimate transportation’s role. “If this is like typical blue-collar neighbourhoods from the early 20th century, you’ll find there was significant loss of industry after the war,” she said. “These losses devastated the area’s primary-use mix.”

Most Danforth blocks west of Pape can be walked at an easy pace in less than a minute. The first block east on the south side takes four minutes, so it's no surprise that the street life dies off.

Then, after a warning about how misleading maps can be, she said my quest to understand the Danforth’s split personality should “start with a good, scaled map; compare block lengths.”

Sure enough, the things she identified in New York apply here. To the west of Pape Ave., in Greektown, where businesses and sidewalks thrive, it takes less than a minute to walk most blocks at an easy pace. Sometimes 45 seconds will do.

The first south-side block east of Pape is unbroken all the way to Jones Avenue and takes nearly four minutes to walk. The long-block east-west streets to the south have little real connection the Danforth. And all through the areas further east, often called the “Other Danforth,” where a “blight of dullness” arises, long blocks dominate at least one side of the street until the rail corridor veers close enough to do further damage by truncating neighbourhoods to the south.

From Roy’s Square, to the Danforth, to New York, Europe and beyond, the role of vitality’s four generators is universal. But while we often add density and mixes of uses, and we sometimes let our buildings age, we rarely add streets and shorten blocks.

It troubled Jacobs to the end.

The best way to thank her for explaining this crucial detail, which was hidden in plain view all along, is to ensure we leave as many small blocks as possible to our descendants.

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.