Monday, July 12, 2010

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

By Greg

In 1962, a journalist wrote of Jane Jacobs, “She has made a career of chopping city planners and urban renewal experts … into small pieces, which she feeds to cats.” After the publication of her landmark book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961), and subsequent tour across the nation – where she excoriated the latest trends in urban planning – Jane Jacobs has never fallen victim to a lack of interest or attention.

Jacobs famously kept a low profile and seldom spoke about herself to journalists and would-be biographers. Yet, during her lifetime a number of books and an endless pool of articles featured the housewife from Greenwich Village and her approach to urbanism that valued street smarts and informed observation over expert analysis and the will of powerful bureaucrats.

Since her passing in 2006, several important books have come out about Jacobs’ life and work. Two notables, Anthony Flint’s Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City (Random House, 2009), and Roberta Brandes Gratz’s The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Nation Books, 2010), recall Jacobs’ battle of ideas with New York’s urban development czar, memorializing a triumph of Vox populi and the value of the human city over the sterile, mega-scale ideas of the Corbusian Ville Radieuse.

Without a doubt, the implications of Jacobs’ ideas, gleaned from her New York experience and expressed so well in Death and Life, continue to influence much contemporary urban thought. It is for that very reason that What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (New Village Press, 2010) resonates so powerfully. In the book, over 30 authors reflect – in short and readable chapters – on the modern relevance of Jacobs’ ideas, explaining how Jacobs’ work influenced their own. These are not all academics, architects or urban designers; far from it. These voices refreshingly reflect Jacobs’ own disdain for compartmentalization of disciplines, with chapters by a theater company founder, bloggers and journalists, community activists, and elected officials, as well as the expected thought leaders, professors, and practitioners.

What We See provides a clear picture of the broad range of Jacobs’ influence – focusing not just on her New York years, but on her more numerous Toronto years, and the significance of her other books, namely The Economy of Cities (Random House, 1969). Much of What We See connects Jacobs’ work with contemporary urban ideas, such as environmental sustainability and buying local. The authors trace Jacobs’ impact to places as diverse as Missoula, Toronto, Germany, and Mumbai, capturing the breadth of her ideas as well as a smattering of biographical reflections from those who knew her and learned directly from “Jane.” The book tries to do many things, and amazingly generally succeeds.

After a foreword by Michael Sorkin (former architecture critic for The Village Voice), the book’s editors, Stephen A. Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth, describe the volume’s main theme: “What we see is largely who we are and what we have learned to see. There is no such thing as an objective observer.” The book then unfolds in six sections, and some of its un-objective observers are very engaging.

In “Jane Jacobs and the “Battle for the Street,” journalist Ray Suarez lays out an excellent and concise discussion of urban renewal, focusing on the rift between intentions of building a better society and the reality of the destruction that it caused. Mindy Thompson Fullilove embarks on a fascinating exploration of the psychology of social disruption and violence, resulting from the events of urban renewal. She analyzes the impacts of America’s “catastrophic urban policies,” which contributed to conditions that can be better understood, she argues, by studying the psychology of Japanese internment camps, prisons, and other places with severe social isolation.

The 2008 recipient of the Jane Jacobs Medal, Alexie M. Torres-Fleming, recounts her parallel Jane Jacobs story. As a Latina in the Bronx, she worked from the grassroots to empower a violence-plagued and disenfranchised community to carry out a robust and successful resident-led planning process. While Jacobs’ own story is often characterized by efforts to kill proposed highways and stop the demolition of neighborhoods, Torres-Fleming talks about the value of rebuilding – of engaging communities in planning a bright future. She writes, “Communities are not just streets and buildings: they are the sacred spaces made up of living, breathing people whose hopes and dreams are wrapped up in those same streets and buildings. Planning can elevate or diminish that reality.”

Perhaps the most provocative piece is Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava’s “The Village Inside,” which profiles the Dharavi slum of Mumbai. They portray Dharavi as a place that exemplifies the essence of Jane Jacobs’ philosophy and progressive urban ideology – mixed-use, creative communities, with live-work spaces, and vibrant locally sustained economies. The authors note that like many disinvested American urban neighborhoods, Dharavi is looked down upon by the government, which seizes on its “messy and makeshift appearance” as a rationale for redevelopment. Yet, this informal settlement exemplifies models of sustainable development that are sought after in wealthy, industrial cities.

Another notable piece is by Jaime Lerner, the firebrand former Mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, who famously reclaimed his city for pedestrians. Lerner challenges urban leaders to take decisive steps to improve our urban places, and asserts in the spirit of Jane Jacobs, “The idea that action should only be taken after all the answers and the resources have been found is a sure recipe for paralysis.”

Several of the authors creatively extend Jacobs’ ideas to broader concepts. Pierre Desrochers and Samuli Leppälä discuss the economics of “Jacobs spillovers,” the phenomenon that results from “…individuals who move frequently between different lines of work and/or regularly borrow ideas from fields other than the one they are working in.” Roberta Brandes Gratz talks about Jacobs’ “web thinking,” focusing on the way that issues are interconnected, debunking the allure of simplistic arguments. In one example she writes, “Yes, more electric cars and hybrids will help clean the air we breathe, but it won’t do anything to tame traffic, minimize the amount of land devoted to blacktop, limit sprawl, regenerate pedestrian-oriented places, or rebuild communities.”

Ironically (or perhaps appropriately) the most interesting chapters are the ones that have the least to do with Jane Jacobs. Janine Benyus’ chapter on biomimicry, and economist Saskia Sassen’s chapter on the intersection of the knowledge economy and 21st-century urban industry focus on themes that are, in one sense, related to Jacobs’ overall message, but on a broader level represent entirely independent scholarship.

While many chapters are highly enjoyable, and a handful are gems, some are less successful – overly simplistic, semantic, or jargony to the point of being nearly unreadable. A few seem to completely miss the essence of Jacobs’ message, like Clare Cooper Marcus’ chapter that encourages developments with cul-de-sacs and “privacy ‘buffer[s]’ such as a fenced yard or patio.” One weak point of What We See is its failure to adequately discuss the complexity of the Jacobs’ legacy. A few authors note criticisms of Jacobs – like her praise of the forces that ultimately led her beloved Greenwich Village to become hypergentrified – but overall the book reads like a Jacobs lovefest. Still, with so many different voices, and so much of the volume inspired by (rather than about) Jacobs, it holds together and feels satisfying by the end.

The book concludes with a lovely epilogue by Mary Rowe, recounting her personal interaction with Jacobs over tea, discussing the recovery of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Jane tells her at one point, “You’re thinking like a bureaucrat. The people of New Orleans will decide what to do about their city – not you.” Thus, the book ends with Jacobs’ never-ending faith that communities will take care of themselves through grassroots, self-motivated, incremental progress – that top-down thinking can only do harm.

Yet this conclusion contrasts with the underlying message of many of the writers, who seem to believe that through innovation and a more accurate understanding of how cities really function (informed by Jacobs’ wisdom, of course), we can build healthier, more sustainable, more vital places for all kinds of people. It is a new, entrepreneurial, 21st-century outlook. Indeed, the true message of What We See is that we have a fresh generation of urban thought leaders who have learned from Jane Jacobs, but are intelligent, passionate, and innovative enough to develop their own ideas, messages, and strategies for action.