In an exclusive half-hour episode focusing on the life and legacy of Jane Jacobs, "one of the most influential urban thinkers and city activists of our time." Featuring interviews with a carefully selected range of city planners, historians and activists, alongside recordings of Jacobs herself, this special episode of Monocle 24's The Urbanist examines why Jacobs was—and remains—so influential when considering the contemporary city.
This article was originally published in the Literary Review of Canada as "Tunnel Vision: Why our cities need less Jane Jacobs." It has been partially re-published with permission.
My introduction to Jane Jacobs was completely ordinary. Like many, many architecture students since its publication in 1962, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for an introductory course in urbanism. Jacobs was a joy to read, whip-crack smart and caustically funny, and she wrote in impeccable, old-school sentences that convinced you with their unimpeded flow. She explained her ideas in utterly clear and simple language. Planners are “pavement pounding” or “Olympian.” There are “foot people and car people.”
Why were we reading her? I expect it was to encourage us to look harder at the city, and to imbibe some of her spirited advocacy for experience over expertise. It was a captivating message and delivered at the right time. Today it seems as though everybody interested in cities has read at least part of Death and Life and found personal affirmation in it. Michael Kimmelman wrote, “It said what I knew instinctively to be true.” For David Crombie, “she made it clear that the ideas that mattered were the ones which we understood intimately.”
This quality was important, and one of the reasons that Jacobs endures in our culture is the facility with which we can identify with her. She is one of “us,” whoever that is—not an expert, more like an aunt than a professor. Her speciality was the induction of rules from patterns discovered by individual observation, like a 19th-century gentleman scientist. Her work gave seriousness to reactions that might otherwise be dismissed as taste, ignorance or prejudice.
Once a photograph is uploaded to social media, it ceases to be part of one’s private archive and becomes public property – as well as an object of study for researchers. There have been many attempts to study photographs on the scale of "Big Data." Take, for example, the numerous and well-publicised projects by Lev Manovich’s Big Data Lab. Evidently, using the results of one study of the huge online archive of photographs to make conclusions about society at large, is not necessarily a good idea. It’s fair to say that our society is not evenly represented online: a 19-year old woman may be posting her selfies daily, but it doesn’t mean that same goes for a sixty-five year old man. That said, we can learn a lot about cities and their inhabitants from the results of studies such as these.
Throughout her career, social activist and urban writer Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916 – April 25, 2006) fought against corporate globalization and urged post-war urban planners and developers to remember the importance of community and the human scale. Despite having no formal training, she radically changed urban planning policy through the power of observation and personal experience. Her theories on how design can affect community and creativity continue to hold relevance today - influencing everything from the design of mega-cities to tiny office spaces.
The Jane Jacobs Documentary - a feature length film focusing on the life and work of celebrated author and urban activist, Jane Jacobs - is set to be released Fall 2016. Coinciding with the author’s 100th birthday, Robert Hammond, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Friends of the High Line, and Matt Tyrnauer, producer/director of Valentino: The Last Emperor, plan to have the film tour festivals near the end of this year.
Architecture serves many essential functions in the fabric of the built environment, but it is the perpetual deficit of housing that some might argue is the field’s ultimate clarion call. In virtually every global city, growing populations and limited supplies of affordable dwellings are the major issues of twenty-first century life—and therefore are indications of the continued relevance of architecture in solving vexing urban predicaments. The last century offered early promise in addressing such issues with proposals to house the masses in immense slabs and box buildings, structures almost as large as their social ambition. But what became an asset of scale overlooked, or more probably misunderstood, the social degradation that such largeness elicited.
Aware of the fact that a one-size-fits-all approach to social housing rarely brings the desired outcomes of sociability, accountability, and community, Winnipeg’s 5468796 Architecture sought to reinvent the typology on a smaller scale. The outcome, a project in Winnipeg’s Central Park neighborhood known as Centre Village, is a 25-unit housing complex that prioritizes windows for observation and public spaces for socializing. Initially heralded as a beacon for public housing done right, the project was recently the target of vitriol in a Guardian article, claiming its secluded courtyard makes it "a magnet for drinking and drug-taking" and that its architectural vanity is to the detriment of apartment sizes and layouts. Subsequently, the Winnipeg Free Press published a response piece, "Building a better neighbourhood," and more recently on ArchDaily, 5468796 published a “letter-to-the-editor” to share their side of story and to dispel some of the negativity surrounding Centre Village. The myriad of perspectives can make you wonder: who’s right?
It has been over fifty years since Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, revolutionized discourse on urban planning, and her words still carry a huge influence today. But in the intervening decades New York City has changed in ways Jacobs could never have imagined when she was writing in the 1960s. In a recent article for City Journal, Judith Miller tries to imagine how Jane Jacobs would have responded to some of New York City's recent projects - taking as examples the imminent domain actions and tax breaks that made Brooklyn's Atlantic Yards (now also known as Pacific Park) possible, the cluster of skyscrapers and public venues planned for Hudson Yards on the west side of Manhattan, and the supertall luxury condo towers that are beginning to cast their long shadows over Central Park. Read Miller's article in full here.
Robert Moses, the planner-politician-architect who infamously built overpasses too low for buses to bring New York’s urban poor to his beaches, is the subject of a new graphic novel by Pierre Christin and Olivier Balez titled Robert Moses: The Master Builder of New York City. Admirable for its candid rawness, their profile of perhaps the most polarizing and important figure in American planning history is no lionizing eulogy. The impressive triumphs of Moses’ tenure are juxtaposed with unsparing accounts of his regrettable social policies and the often-shortsighted consequences of his public infrastructure. For each groundbreaking feat of structural engineering and political mobilization, there is another story told of his callous social engineering, the consequences of which reshaped the lives of New Yorkers as much as his architecture.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we asked the Brazilian non-profit group Arquitetas Invisíveis to share with us a part of their work, which identifies women in architecture and urbanism. They kindly shared with us a list of 48 important women architects, divided into seven categories: pioneers, “in the shadows,” architecture, urbanism, landscape architecture, social architecture, and sustainable architecture. We will be sharing this list over the course of the week.
Yesterday we brought you The Architects, and today we present women leaders in the field of urbanism.
Yes, you read right - the 1960s urban planning battle between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses will be the central story line for a new opera. Although the premiere is a long way off, its creators promise to bring New York City and the drama to life through song and an elaborate, animated, three-dimensional set. To find out more about the developing project, head on over to Fast Co-Design.