We made it! Another fabulous sketch by Yen Trinh of City Love :)

We made it! Thank you to all of our Guides, the Toronto Public Library, our Twitter followers and Facebook fans, mailing list members, commenters, and to those of you who wrote and sketched your way through the book on your own sites! We have really enjoyed seeing this book through your eyes and learning from your experiences in cities around the world. Fill out our survey to let us know what you thought and to sign up for the next round!

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Get out and walk!

On May 5th and 6th, celebrate Jane Jacobs’ legacy by going on a Jane’s Walk in your city!

Jane’s Walk is a series of free neighbourhood walking tours that helps put people in touch with their environment and with each other, by bridging social and geographic gaps and creating a space for cities to discover themselves.  Since its inception in 2007, Jane’s Walk has happened in cities across North America, and is growing internationally.

Jane’s Walk honours the legacy and ideas of urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs who championed the interests of local residents and pedestrians over a car-centered approach to planning.

All Jane’s Walk tours are given and taken for free. These walks are led by anyone who has an interest in the neighbourhoods where they live, work or hang out. They are not always about architecture and heritage, and offer a more personal take on the local culture, the social history and the planning issues faced by the residents. Jane Jacobs believed strongly that local residents understood best how their neighbourhood works, and what is needed to strengthen and improve them. Jane’s Walks are meant to be fun, engaged and participatory – everyone’s got a story and they’re usually keen to share it.

Blog round-up

Recommendations from the Toronto Public Library

The Toronto Reference Library at 789 Yonge St. now houses the collection of the Urban Affairs Library, formerly located at Metro Hall. As a specialized collection devoted to all aspects of urban planning and local government, the library contains far more than the materials cited here. Titles were selected by librarian Cynthia Fisher to give you an overview of some new and some old books and reports that you can find at the library to complement (and perhaps contradict) some of Jane Jacobs’ views. When viewing the catalogue records for the books, click on some of the subject headings to give you a broader range of materials.

Walking home: the life and lessons of a city builder

Ken Greenberg has not only advocated for the renewal of downtown cores, he has for thirty years designed the very means by which that renewal can happen. Walking Home is both Ken’s story and a lesson in turning the world’s urban spaces back into places that can give us not only a platform to face the challenges of the future, but also a place we can call, with pride and satisfaction, home.

City building : nine planning principles for the twenty-first century

Good city building is not created by complex statistics, functional problem solving, or any particular decision-making process. Successful cities instead come from people advocating easily understood human values and principles that take into account the sensory, tactile, and sustainable qualities of environment and design in relation to what is the best of human endeavor.

Local motion : the art of civic engagement in Toronto

Decisions about the things that matter most on a daily basis – our roads and schools and houses – happen at the city level. So, how do we influence these decisions? What motivates ordinary citizens to take action and improve their community? How do neighbours organize together? Does City Hall facilitate engagement, or stand in the way? Local Motion explores how we, as citizens, can make a positive change in our city.

Local government in a global world : Australia and Canada in comparative perspective

Local government plays a critical role in the lives of all citizens, from remote towns to capital cities. As the political legitimacy and importance of municipalities grow, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to strike a balance between local and higher levels of government. The contributors to Local Government in a Global World provide insights into key themes impacting local governance in two federations with much in common historically, culturally, and politically: Australia and Canada.

Merger mania: The assault on local government

Outside the United States, forced municipal mergers were a popular policy in many European countries and Canadian provinces during the 1960s and 1970s. The city of Laval, just north of Montreal, and the “unicity” of Winnipeg owe their origins to this period – both amalgamations failed to meet their original objectives. Despite the emergence of “public choice” theory – which justifies municipal fragmentation on market principles – some politicians and public servants in the 1990s have continued to advocate municipal amalgamations as a means of reducing public expenditure, particularly in Ontario. In Merger Mania Andrew Sancton demonstrates that this approach has generally not saved money. He examines the history of amalgamation, as well as studying recent forced municipal mergers in Halifax, Toronto, Ottawa, Hamilton, and Sudbury.

Canadian local government : an urban perspective

Written by esteemed political scientist Andrew Sancton, Canadian Local Government: An Urban Perspective is a comprehensive introduction to municipal government in Canada. The text emphasizes that what happens in local government affects our lives on a daily basis just as much, if not more, than what happens at the provincial and federal levels.

Foundations of governance : municipal government in Canada’s provinces

Canada’s municipalities function in diverse ways but have similar problems and, in this way, are illustrative of the importance of local democracy. Foundations of Governance shows that municipal governments require the legitimacy granted by a vibrant democracy in order to successfully negotiate and implement important collective choices about the futures of communities.

Governance of Toronto : challenges of size and complexity

Contributors: Stren, Richard.

Understanding local government in Canada

This 2006 video offers students an easy-to-follow, fun, fast-paced look at how their local governments manage communities and their everyday lives.


Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder

(This post is adapted from my book, Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder.)

Jane Jacobs was one of the first to identify clear parallels between the complex workings of cities and the ecology of natural systems. She developed an appreciation for complex, “self-organizing” survival mechanisms and was frustrated with the kind of institutional wrong-headedness—bureaucratic, political and pseudoscientific—that impedes the creative process of human adaptation. She argued for the fundamental efficiency of cities that used pre-existing resources to provide shelter and sustenance and to produce goods and services. Though couched in different language, her observations presaged the current focus on sustainability.

Ebenezer Howard's Garden City

Jacobs’ arguments posed the most fundamental challenge to the still-potent antiurban values and pervasive imagery rooted in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Le Corbusier’s Radiant City. In contrast to these seductive visions of cities in an idealized end state, this determined inductive observer demonstrated that there were more sophisticated processes at work in real existing cities, which consisted of perpetually unfinished, intensely interactive webs of relationships. She was dislodging the underpinnings of modernist thinking. Continue reading »


I think this is the most beloved chapter for any of us who were ever considered a ‘problem child’. I am afraid I can just imagine some well meaning teacher approaching my parents,  “Well, this is the kind of child your daughter is ….”

Miss Mischievous by Johan Larsson

I don’t think Jane Jacobs saw cities as a problem at all (just as most parents don’t see their children to be). They have problems, but they are not problems themselves.

Rough City and Smooth Gherkin by Ian Mansfield

But, just as there are always some well intentioned teachers or child-minders who feel compelled to suggest corrective actions to make children more conforming, in Jacobs’ time, as now, there are critics of city life, just dying to ‘clean them up’, fix this, beautify that. Urban scolds. We all know them.

There is an earthiness to Jane Jacobs: she appreciated things just as they were, observed clearly, and generally without judgment saw ways in which cities were being inhibited from sorting themselves out in creative, generative ways. She loved these ‘problems’, knowing that vibrant cities find creative ways to address their challenges.

So I think Jacobs titled this chapter ironically, suggesting well if we have to insist on referring to cities as problems, then at least let’s define what kind of ‘problem’ they are. Continue reading »


So here we are at the end. Or should I say “the beginning?”

When reading Chapter 22 I couldn’t help but reflect on how much more potent this chapter would be had it been the very first chapter of the book. Before embarking on a really massive and oftentimes confusing book, wouldn’t it have been valuable to know Jacobs’ viewpoint of what kind of a problem a city actually is?

Wouldn’t that have informed our entire reading of the text?

At its core, D&L is a polemic and plea to start the actual act of studying a city as though it were a biological entity. Jacobs ask us to spend time creating a taxonomy of cities; to understand its individual organs; to theorize and test our assumptions about how those organs interact; to learn the internal processes that make a city actually work; and how to diagnose, treat or prevent the diseases that inevitably will come to affect any given city.

Most importantly of all she asks us to stop thinking about a city in simple ways.

Cities are not two-variable problems where one can ignore “the minor influence of other factors.” In Jacobs world, the minor influences of other factors is the very definition of what makes a city a city – and we must contemplate them in this way. To her, a city is a “problem which involves dealing simultaneously with a sizable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole.

In other words, the city is a wonderful, beautiful, all-consuming hurricane. No single particle of it can be described or measured independent of every other particle. It eats, it breathes, it grows, it contracts, it’s born and it dies. And for better or worse, it dramatically impacts everything it touches.

Only the willfully ignorant would conduct an experiment within the eye of the hurricane believing the hurricane will cause no impact on his results. Yet that’s what we do all the time.

50 years after D&L’s initial publication we still tend to act as though urban problems are of the simple, two-variable kind. We preach simplistic theories as solutions to problems far more complex than we’re willing to admit. We show up to a towering inferno with a water pistol:

  • If we build transit in this impoverished area, the area will thrive!
  • If we build a park, people will have picnics!
  • If we build a bench on this sidewalk, the sidewalk will have pedestrians!
  • If we build an aquarium, tourists will flock to our decrepit downtown!
  • If everyone owns their own home, those homes will maintain and grow in value!
  • If we et cetera, then et cetera will happen!

It doesn’t happen like that, we know it and we need to admit it.

The more I turn this chapter over in my head, I can’t help but feel that Jacobs’ insights here are the greatest contribution D&L makes to the philosophy and theory of urban planning. Eyes on the Street might be popular and known – but Chapter 22 should be scripture.

Unfortunately it’s not scripture and I believe that making this last chapter the first could’ve changed that. Whether we wish to believe it or not, the majority of people who pick up D&L (for whatever reason) are unlikely to finish it.

That’s not because it’s a bad book or that people are lazy.

It’s because it’s a hard book and people are busy.

An observation as poignant as that found at the core of Chapter 22 needs to be more front-and-centre. People may disagree with me on this (in fact I’m sure people will disagree with me on this), but the reason Eyes on the Street became such an essential concept had as much to do with the the quality of the idea as it did with its appearance on page 35 rather than 429.

The usefulness of an idea, after all, is generally proportional to the number of people who encounter it.

Jacobs’ imperative to treat cities as living organisms may sound like a trite and naive holdover from the 1960’s but it’s not. It’s a call to abandon a planning culture that still uses leeches to balance our humours. It’s a call to change how we think about cities. It’s a call to adopt a more rigorous, honest and humble culture of admitting there’s a lot about these living creatures we call cities that we really don’t understand and need to learn about.

And we need to do that soon because like any living organism, cities aren’t forever. They get sick. They die.

Detroit and Cleveland are dying right before our eyes, in our lifetime, and yet we struggle to come to terms with it. We still throw out simplistic solutions like downtown baseball stadia and urban downsizing, yet certainly the problems are more complex than that.  There must be a way to save Cleveland! we pledge to ourselves, and maybe there is.

And maybe there isn’t.

Perhaps Detroit and Cleveland are past the point of no return. That’s the thing with a living creature – it can only take so much abuse before the family has to decide whether it’s time to pull the plug or not.

Or perhaps Detroit and Cleveland are afflicted by other unseen diseases such that only exhibit themselves as sprawl, economic inequality, little innovation and poor export prospects.

Or perhaps after closer analysis we discover that Detroit and Cleveland’s decay is nothing more than Jacobs’ natural slumming/de-slumming process writ large with an inevitable boom waiting just around the corner.

Or perhaps it’s something else entirely.

Trouble it, we don’t know which it is. But wouldn’t it be great to know?

Like, really, actually know?

Random Thoughts

  • If you’d like to learn more about organized complexity, there’s a great book by Phillip Ball titled Critical Mass. Warning: It’s difficult and wordy, but well worth the effort.
  • “(Planners) have inevitably come to regard “unaverage” quantities as relatively inconsequential, because these are statistically inconsequential. They have been trained to discount what is most vital.” I love this. Consider that quote in the context of the restaurant industry. On average, most fail within a few years. Those that succeed are in the minority. Were we to use the average as a guide for us, we would conclude that all restaurants fail. Instead, we should be examining why some restaurants thrive and apply those lessons to those that fail. We spend far too much time in our profession ignoring the outliers.
  • My page quoting is based on an old edition of the text.
  • Thanks to everyone who read along! I know it was tough going sometimes, but I hope it was worth the effort!
  • Anyone have any ideas for the next book?

This chapter of Death and Life, like the others, is rich on ideas backed up with concrete suggestions for change. Some 50 years later, much of it still resonates.

From the outset, Jacobs quickly sets the scene for why we still find ourselves in 2012 with a need to talk about governing cities and their planning districts:

“Even more discouraging […] is the sense one soon gets of problems which are out of control of everyone. Their ramifications are too complex; too many different kinds of trouble, need and services are interlocked in a given place – too many to be understood, let alone helped or handled when they are attacked, one-sidedly and remotely, by the sprawling municipal governments separate administrative empires each by each (p. 529)”

Homelessness, poverty, transit planning and crumbling infrastructure are among the myriad complex challenges Toronto and other great cities struggle with. Our persistent inability to find workable solutions reminds us that the frustration Jane Jacobs diagnosed in 1961 continues some 50 years later.

Jacobs’ discussion about a city’s scale, size, and structure and the organization of urban governments are connected.

She argues that great cities must be divided into administrative geographic districts with diversely skilled staff tasked to effectively respond to the urban issues that these districts face.

Jacobs felt that if we scaled down our governance structure, then city staff would have a more intimate connection with the people and their neighbourhoods that form the pieces of our cities. She felt that when cities are too big the staff lose perspective and are less effective.

What is an appropriate size for a government district?

Similar to her approach in Chapter 11 on density, Jacobs takes a Goldilocks Principle approach: Government districts should be small enough to connect with local issues, and large enough to connect with city-wide issues.

Governments: "Can't see the forest for the trees?" Or the other way around? (Photo by Matt Becker)

She ascribes an optimal size and scale of urban government based on the logic that in smaller cities staff can know the people and the place better than in a bigger city. She specifically prescribes that big cities should break down their management into smaller administrative units with 1.5 square mile geographies. This would allow the staff, with their horizontal management structures, to know the people, places and intricacies well and thus manage their affairs effectively.

This argument is a familiar one in Toronto. In the late ‘90s the Harris government amalgamated the City of Toronto with its metropolitan structure (Metro Toronto) and the surrounding four local governments (East York, Etobicoke, North York, Scarborough, York). One of the many significant concerns at the time was that a new amalgamated Toronto would be too big and impersonal to govern. But what might these specifics mean for Toronto in 2012?

If we take Jacobs’ geographic recipe and apply it to Toronto our city would require 162 administrative units. Interestingly, the City of Toronto has 140 official neighbourhoods. Is it possible to imagine governing the City of Toronto by neighbourhood administrative units?

Toronto's 140 Neighbourhoods, City of Toronto website

Toronto's 44 Electoral Wards, City of Toronto website

In our current climate of ‘less government is better,’ it is hard to imagine Council moving toward a neighbourhood-based type of administrative model. Setting all current political preoccupations aside, is there merit in a smaller administrative unit approach?

Local place-based knowledge and city-wide knowledge

Jacobs argued that:

“It is not enough for administrators in most fields to understand specific services and techniques. They must understand, and understand thoroughly, specific places.”

From Spacing Magazine to the Centre for City Ecology to Jane’s Walk, Toronto’s civic culture has benefitted from the breadth and depth of urbanists working toward to more place-based city-building. But do we also need to align the City’s bureaucratic structure to match these place-based efforts?

In the most recent Toronto transit debacle, many argued against the ward-based electoral system in which councilors represent specific districts. This alignment of political decision-making with smaller “units” of the city is being weighed against other political models (like Vancouver’s) where the councilors are elected to represent the city as a whole, rather than one section of it.

When responding to changes that are proposed for our local neighbourhoods that may surprise or alarm us, it is tempting to respond from a purely local perspective without considering the needs of the city as a whole. One of the challenges is that if the proposed development doesn’t go in our neighbourhood then it will end up in someone else’s. How can we balance the neighbourhood concerns with city-wide concerns? How do we balance the importance of local knowledge with a city-wide discussion about what Toronto needs a whole?

Local knowledge is valuable and necessary, but local knowledge alone isn’t sufficient in a complex city like Toronto.

We need place-based commitment joined up to big picture thinking and action.

Jacobs had it right when she said “no other expertise can substitute for locality knowledge in planning, whether planning is creative, coordinating or predictive”. When Jacobs first shared this idea 50 years ago she recognized cities were complex ecosystems. But now in Toronto in 2012 we have an even fuller understanding of just how complex urban issues really are.

So, should we, as Jacobs suggests, move to Toronto with 140 neighbourhood offices? I think the answer is ‘no’, that’s too literal a reading of her work. Toronto is more than the sum of its neighbourhoods.

The governance challenge we continue to face is this: How can we find new ways to capture and mobilize that local knowledge and scale it up for city-building action that serves Toronto as a whole?

© 2012 City Builder Book Club Suffusion theme by Sayontan Sinha