With her very first sentence, Jacobs picked a fight with an incredibly powerful and entrenched group of individuals and interests. They fought back against Jacobs’ entire philosophy because it was incredibly threatening to the established way of doing things. It threatened livelihoods, it threatened fortunes and it threatened jobs.
Still does today.
That’s the thing about attacking people — it doesn’t win you any friends. Her broadside has always made Jane Jacobs a controversial, and I’d add, a somewhat marginalized figure within the planning profession.
Personally, it has always puzzled me that while her seminal work was held up as the book on urban planning, it never appeared on a single one of my course syllabi during two urban planning-related degrees. Not once.
Is that not remarkably strange?
After all, what’s a physics class without a shout-out to Newton? But then again, can we expect lecturers and academics — many of whom are practicing planners themselves — to preach from a gospel lampooning their own stock and trade?
That’s the striking thing about D&L. This is a book that has never gone out of print since it was first published 50 years ago and is generally thought of as the most important book on city building of the 20th century. Yet rarely, if at all, have the vast majority of the ideas contained within it been adopted by the mainstream profession and practice. We still plan from the top, build long blocks and infantilize our citizens — probably even more so now than ever before.
Should Jacobs’ legacy, then, be tarnished by accusations of writing a brilliant book whose theories were never implemented? I don’t think so. After all, it’s incredibly poor thinking to directly relate the implementation of an idea with the quality of it. Lots of bad ideas have been implemented throughout the ages. Le Corbusier was implemented, but that doesn’t make Radiant City genius.
I’d argue, instead, that Jacobs was playing the long game. Rather than merely try to change things from the inside (which rarely, if ever, works) Jacobs chose instead to rally an army of supporters from the outside who, after a generation or two, would actually be in a position to carry out the changes she envisioned.
The danger of this, of course, is that after 50 years, what Jacobs envisioned is subject to interpretation, adulation, summation and fabrication.
I think Toronto Star columnist Kenneth Kidd described the problem best when he recently wrote:
Jacobs is a kind of patron saint of urbanism and, even, urban planning. The problem with saints is that they tend to be invoked (or not) in at least three ways. They can be paraded on the streets once a year, then more or less forgotten. They can engender an uncritical following of fans, jealously guarding every comma and semicolon in the saintly message. Or they can become tools of convenience, their names invoked to aid any number of projects, as if the mere name of Jacobs was validation enough.
The Jacobs legacy and brand recognition has become almost too valuable for people not to cavalierly cherry-pick her philosophies and “Janewash” her name over every other questionable pet project or cause, solely to generate a kind of urbanist street cred they’d otherwise never garner.
To me, the beauty of Jane Jacobs is her ability to attack problems from both the left and the right. Her philosophy should defy the simple fan worship described by Kidd above but it often doesn’t. That, more than any other, is the reason I wanted to participate in this book club.
I wanted to help make sure that left-leaning readers were using the book to explore the liberating effects of individualism and at the same time to ensure the right-leaning amongst us to understand that Jacobs’ world is one of a community of individuals.
As I see it, the central tension in the book pivots on the tiny head of a pin where both communities and individuals must find room and accommodation for one another. A middle ground where individuals don’t have power over communities and where, paradoxically, communities don’t have power over individuals.
I would encourage everyone who is accompanying us on this journey to remember that duality. In reading this book, your existing beliefs shouldn’t be reinforced — they should be turned on their heads. Try not to merely cherry-pick those parts of D&L that conform to your preconceived worldview. Try not to simply discard the rogue and inconvenient ideas you encounter (no matter your political leanings) within. Let them stew and cook for a bit until you find yourself standing in the shower some morning unsure that if what you always thought you believed you actually believe anymore.
That’s challenging, I admit. But it’s important.
For me, Jacobs’ most powerful passage in the introduction is when she criticizes Le Corbusier’s vision of Utopia saying: “nobody, presumably, was going to have to be his brother’s keeper any more. Nobody was going to have to struggle with plans of his own. Nobody was going to be tied down.” There is contradiction there and I’d argue that the key to Jacobs’ entire philosophy is summarized within that passage. She sees a well-lived life in cities as one where – converse to Corbusier – we have to be each other’s keeper, we have to struggle with plans of our own and we have to be tied down by the contradictions those two things present.
In other words: We’re a community of individuals.
- When Jacobs observes how “slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition” I’d argue that she’s describing a natural process of creative destruction, not the gentrification she’s often accused of contributing to.
- Jacobs complaining about areas with “plenty of grass” makes me smile as it debunks the oft-held fallacy of something being great simply because it’s green. Assuming that all Green things are inherently Great is as ridiculous as assuming that all Great things are inherently Green.
- “Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city planning.” Is anyone else completely turned off by people villainizing the private automobile? I don’t even drive and I’m tired of it.
- “Planners (and) architects of city design . . . have gone to great pains to learn what the saints and sages of modern orthodox planning have said about how cities ought to work and what ought to be good for people and businesses in them.” An understanding of the detrimental effects of this kind of behavior can be found in industrial designer Donald A. Norman’s fantastic The Design of Everyday Things.
- “As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance (belong) only to the planners in charge.” While many tools of industry have been democratized by technology to the point where virtually anyone can craft businesses of their own, it concerns me how we are still so dangerously slow to democratize our tools of government.