We can only hope that future generations will be blessed
with urban enthusiasts like Jane Jacobs. She began speaking her mind at a time when master planning consultants were sketching
utopias on pads as they peered down from their airplane window seats. She didn’t give a hoot for these theorists and
academic blow-it-alls. And she battled fat-cat developers who didn’t give a hoot for the residents of the communities
they were aiming to destroy.
She found that the micro view was the best view and
the only human way to perceive the infinitely complex patterns and relationships within a lively neighborhood and between
neighbors– block by block, door by door. Real people didn’t exist on a mega-map. She counseled that if you lost
the human scale, ambience, and spirit– you’d end up with a dingy, angry, frustrated, and despairing population.
A true master of inductive logic in urban planning, she
actually cared about people– what they were doing, where they were going– what they wanted. She noticed little
things that mattered-- a lot. When neighbors sat out on their front porches or looked out from their front windows from time
to time, looking out for one another, street crime dwindled. She threw a spotlight on the obvious and didn’t apologize
for sheer practicality. She knew that the physical set-up and design of things affected behavior– for better or worse.
This is not a woman who could be prodded into a gated-community.
After her transforming book "The
Death and Life of Great American Cities," her interests broadened. Her prolific thinking and inquisitiveness brought
more questions, conclusions, discoveries, and more questions-- and she admitted to keeping untidy notes. But she would inevitably pull her ideas together with each book: The Economy of Cities (1969), The Question of Separatism (1980),
Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), Systems
of Survival (1993), and The Nature of Economies (2000).
The indomitable Jane Jacobs died in Toronto in April, 2006,
and will be remembered with affection and gratitude by those she touched– by her words, her books, and her actions.
Her verve and intellectual stamina will be greatly missed.
Some words from Jane Jacobs:
"Cities have the capability of providing something for
everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody."
"Vital cities have marvelous, innate abilities for understanding,
communicating, contriving, and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties."
"Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered
rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon."
"In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity."
"As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so
in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have
arisen on a foundation of nonsense."
A few words about Jane's final book, in
which she got a lot off her chest-- worthwhile criticism from her top-ten list of stupidities hampering the progress of our
culture. She was still full of pragmatic insight and wisdom, sifting myth for truth and fiinding 'hollow theories,' 'foregone
fiascos,' 'kleptocracy,' and, yes, 'idiocy.' In her clear and coherent way of writing-- and inimitable voice-- she
mounted a well-mannered rant warning of the consequenes of our mass cultural amnesia. So glad she had her final say: she left
clear assessments, direction, guidance, and solutions. Let's hope that some of the folks 'in charge' of the mess read
it, 'get it,' and weep.
Photo: Chicago's State Street on a winter evening. URBANICITY