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The foremost urban thinker of her time: Jane Jacobs literally wrote the book on creating and preserving livable cities.

Don Butler, with files from Joel Kom
The Ottawa Citizen; with files from Citizen News Services.
Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Don Butler looks back on her life.

She was an autodidact who never graduated from university, and her contrarian ideas about cities once prompted the eminent historian Lewis Mumford to grumpily dismiss her as a “sloppy novice.”

But by the time of her death yesterday in Toronto, a week shy of her 90th birthday, Jane Jacobs had been widely acknowledged as the most prescient and original urban thinker of her time. Her ideas have reshaped the way countless people think about cities.

Though she is credited with helping to spark the New Urbanism movement, which has hugely influenced planners and architects, she was always something of a prophet without honour among city decision makers, who still recoil from many of her urban prescriptions. “If you ask what’s her legacy, in terms of cities, she’s not had nearly enough influence,” says John Sewell, a friend and former mayor of Toronto, who describes Ms. Jacobs as “the premier thinker about cities of the 20th century. She stands above the Lewis Mumfords of the world, because she was so practical.”

Gloria Kovach, president of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and a councillor for the city of Guelph, says the American-born Ms. Jacobs paved the way for revolutionary ideas in urban planning.

Before her arrival on the scene, Ms. Kovach says, cities were not seen as economic drivers. That meant businesses and housing were plunked down without any thought to surrounding infrastructure.

Ms. Jacobs forced planners to think about the bigger picture, Ms. Kovach says, leading them to consider everything from transit to population densities with any new development. “She was a leader and ahead of our time.”

Her basic message was deceptively simple: leave cities alone and let them develop organically as lively, mixed-use places where people live, work and shop. But it’s a lesson that most cities have yet to learn, says Mr. Sewell.

Though she had no formal training in city planning or architecture, Ms. Jacobs’ seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is considered the most influential volume written on urban planning in the 20th century. The book is a stinging critique of widely accepted “rationalist” post-war planning thought, which advocated urban renewal to carve cities into efficient, single-use units.

For Ms. Jacobs, this was a prescription for the death of cities. Instead, she advocated policies to preserve the vibrancy of the unique neighbourhoods that give a city its texture.

If urban renewers would leave them alone, she argued, many rundown neighbourhoods in U.S. cities had the potential for “spontaneous unslumming,” an insight that anticipated the gentrification wave of later years.

Her ideas prevailed most famously when she helped defeat a plan to build an expressway through New York City’s Washington Square in the early 1960s.

She also helped community groups in Toronto derail the proposed Spadina Expressway after she and her architect husband moved there in 1968. She lived the rest of her life in the city she grew to love.

But most of the U.S. cities she cited in her landmark study paid scant heed to her ideas, merrily razing neighbourhoods to make way for expressways and highrise housing projects for the poor. Such cities as Baltimore, Philadelphia and Detroit still bear the scars of their misjudgment.

Her key lesson, Mr. Sewell says, was that cities are complex organisms and “those who try to apply one idea to rule the roost are usually going to get it wrong.”

“I don’t think that many city decision-makers share in her approach,” he says. “They don’t agree with this idea of complexity, and trying to create processes to make good decisions. And that’s a problem.”

Ottawa, he says, is typical. “It embodies very few of her ideas. Centretown does, but we haven’t replicated that in other parts of the city.”

Ms. Jacobs espoused four broad principles that she believed were necessary to create healthy cities: small blocks, mixed land uses, medium densities and a mix of old and new buildings.

“Those are not the four principles that underlie very many cities in Canada or the United States,” says Mr. Sewell. “They have not been adopted widely, and that’s really unfortunate, because they’re brilliant ideas. These are brilliant ideas we should pay attention to, and we don’t.”

According to Mr. Sewell, city planners have been generally hostile to Ms. Jacobs because she rejected the notion, dear to the hearts of planners everywhere, that one big idea can solve all problems.

“She realized that things are so complex you can’t hope to solve things just on your own. You’d better set up a process that involves lots of people,” he said. “The problem with government bureaucracies is they think they’ve got the answers. They don’t like to have uncertainty about where they’re going. And Jane said, ‘If you’re going to get anywhere, you have to have it.'”

Ms. Jacobs was largely unencumbered by the orthodoxies that govern modern city planning. In the early 1990s, for example, she became involved with a planning process in two downtown Toronto areas filled with old and often abandoned factory buildings.

“People were saying, ‘What kind of planning should we have in this area?'” Mr. Sewell recalls. “And Jane’s line was, ‘Let’s get rid of zoning. Let’s allow any use at all to happen there.’ Well of course, the planners were apoplectic.”

In the end, though, Ms. Jacobs’ proposals carried the day, and today the area — around King and Spadina — is very vibrant, says Mr. Sewell.

That was typical of Ms. Jacobs, he says. “She said, ‘Hands off — let people and activities in the city make those decisions, not you.’ ”

Some things she championed, such as neighbourhood preservation, have almost achieved iconic status today. But Mr. Sewell says Ms. Jacobs was not always happy with the way many people interpreted her ideas.

“Some people interpret neighbourhood preservation as not allowing anything to happen in neighbourhoods, and she disagreed with that fundamentally. She thought that change was something we should be accommodating and setting some guidelines for, so that we were getting acceptable change. We have not done that generally in cities.”

Despite the publication of a quietly apocalyptic 2004 book, Dark Age Ahead, Ms. Jacobs remained optimistic about the future of North American cities, says Mr. Sewell.

“She always used to say that nothing goes in straight lines. So it might look as if it’s going to be deep and black in the future, but there’s always going to be some curves. And you’ve got to be prepared for them.”

For the last 41/2 years of her life, Ms. Jacobs had lunch most Saturdays with Mr. Sewell and his wife. Until almost the very end, he says, she displayed her trademark intellectual curiosity.

“She’d say, ‘What’s going on? What do you know? What’s the new information?’ It was very invigorating. Her curiosity about the world always astounded me.”

© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

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