Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and many other books about economics and how to have sensible cities, died this week in Toronto just shy of her 90th birthday. I’m sad to say I’ve never read any of her work and had only a passing familiarity with the name, but it makes me incredibly happy reading all the obits to know that she existed. It seems like many, if not most, of our culture’s best, common sense, rarely-employed urban planning concepts stem from her work. And unlike many who can write persuasively on such issues, she seems to have had a tangible, noticeable effect by stopping unnecessary, bad-idea projects from occurring in the cities where she lived. Sometimes by force, as the NYT obit recounts:
Ms. Jacobs did not limit her impact to words. In 1961, she and other screaming protesters were removed by the police from a City Planning Commission hearing after they had leapt from their seats and rushed the podium. In 1968, she was arrested on charges of second-degree riot and criminal mischief in disrupting a public meeting on the construction of an expressway, which would have sliced across Lower Manhattan and displaced hundreds of families and businesses. The police said she had tried to tear up the stenographer’s transcript tape.
Her personality seems to have been one of her biggest assets. How can you not be won over by this? Also from the NYT:
In an interview in Azure magazine in 1997, Ms. Jacobs recounted her habit of carrying on imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson while running errands. When she could think of nothing more to tell Jefferson, she replaced him with Benjamin Franklin.
"Like Jefferson, he was interested in lofty things, but also in nitty-gritty, down-to-earth details," she said, "such as why the alley we were walking through wasn’t paved, and who would pave it if it were paved. He was interested in everything, so he was a very satisfying companion."
Years later, she realized that she had developed her talent of working through difficult ideas in simple terms by practicing them on her imaginary Franklin. She also acquired another inner companion through Alfred Duggan, an English historical novelist. He was Cerdic, a Saxon chieftain. Years later, she continued to chat with him while doing housework.
"There were only two things in the entire house that were familiar to him," she wrote, "the fire (although he didn’t understand the chimney), and the sword," a Civil War souvenir. "Everything else had to be explained to him."
She believed that residential and commercial activity should be in the same place, that the safest neighbourhoods teem with life, short winding streets are better than long straight ones, lowrise housing is better than impersonal towers, that a neighbourhood is where people talk to one another. She liked the small-scale.
Former Toronto mayor David Crombie said that while people see her as a city builder, affecting the city form, her impact was much bigger and deeper.
"The most important thing she did for me and us was remind us that ideas matter, and the ideas that were most important are the ones that mattered to us," Crombie said. "She also believed you take action. You don’t have ideas and go away. There is a direct connection of thought and action."
That’s some kind of legacy. Raise a glass for Jane Jacobs tonight.