Week 1 wrap-up

Thanks for joining the conversation! We have been astounded by our site statistics this week — your fellow book club members hail from cities across the world:

The top 20 cities that people have visited this site from are Toronto, Melbourne, New York City, Dallas, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Tel Aviv, Vancouver, Montreal, Washington, Helsinki, London, Sydney, Auckland, Edmonton, Los Angeles, Ottawa, and Lucerne!

Who’s talking about the book club


The Urbanist (Melbourne, Australia) – The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

I started re-reading the late Jane Jacobs’ famous book, The death and life of great American cities, last night. It’s decades since I read it and to be honest I’m not sure if I ever read all of it. I suspect that’s true of many people – maybe it’s one of those books Italo Calvino calls “the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them”.

The Walking Bostonian (Boston, USA) – The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

The first time I read this book, I originally picked it up from the library along with The Image of the City by Kevin Lynch, a contemporary of Jacobs. I began reading Lynch’s book first. Several days later, I happened to open the first page of Death and Life, just to see what it was like. I couldn’t put it down. I finished several chapters that afternoon. Her writing style is incredibly compelling and bold. Consider the very first sentence: “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” She wanted to show people that modern city planning was to science what bloodletting was to medicine.

Upper Toronto (Toronto, Canada) – Future-proofing Jane Jacobs

For the next two months, you can check this space for regular posts reflecting on chapters of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The fine folks at the Centre for City Ecology have teamed up with Creative Urban Projects to present the City-Builder Book Club (CBBC)—a guided and scheduled online discussion, beginning with Jane Jacobs’ landmark tome of urban theory. Our purpose here will be to look at planning discourse past (Jacobs) and present (the discussion hosted by the CBBC through blog posts and discussion forums) and see how the ideas raised might be addressed in the design of Upper Toronto.

MADE (Birmingham, UK — MADE’s David Tittle will be blogging with us on Chapter 12) – Death and Life at 50: book group and competition

MADE is giving the chance for one lucky person in the UK to win a copy of the special 50th anniversary of the book.  This edition is not currently available in the UK. All we ask you to do is to compose a tweet which sums up or reflects on all or some of the 400+ pages of Death & LIfe in just 132 characters. Easy!

Human Transit (Portland, USA — Human Transit’s Jarrett Walker will be blogging with us on Chapter 18) – A good reason to re-read Jane Jacobs

This is one of the few books that Absolutely Everyone Who Thinks About Cities Has Read, so if you haven’t read it, (a) don’t tell anyone, not even your partner or priest or dog, and (b) take this opportunity to read the book as commentary and discussion appears on the Book Club Blog, chapter by chapter.


  • Metro Morning, CBC Radio: Shaping Our City – Matt Galloway interviews CCE Director Gillian Mason about the book club (February 1st)

Jane Jacobs on The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Curious how Jane herself would characterize this book? We were delighted to find this 2001 interview she gave to Metropolis Magazine:

James Howard Kunstler (JHK): Naturally I was reviewing some of your books the last couple of weeks. They stand up so beautifully. One would have to suppose at the time that you wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities that you were pretty ticked off at American culture. For instance you wrote, “It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work but only the kind of quick, easy outer impression that they get.” And you wrote that around 1960 or the late 50s.

Jane Jacobs (JJ): Yeah, I was working on that book…I began in 1958 and finished it in 1960.

JHK: Well, it seems to me that American life has changed very little in that regard. In fact I actually go around on the lecture circuit telling audiences that we are a wicked people who deserved to be punished…and I am not religious. So what was your state of mind. Were you ticked off at American culture? Was it the culture of civic design? Was it Robert Moses? Was it some combination of those things? Was it the Bauhaus? What was it that was getting under your skin in those days?

JJ: Well what was getting immediately under my skin was this mad spree of deceptions and vandalism and waste that was called urban renewal. And the way it had been adopted like a fad and people were so mindless about it and so dishonest about what was being done. That’s what ticked me off, because I was working for an architectural magazine and I saw all this first hand and I saw how the most awful things were being excused.

JHK: You must have already been acquainted with things like Corbusier’s “Radiant City” and some of the schemes from the 20s and the Bauhaus. By this time Gropius had become installed at Harvard and Mies Van der Rohe…

JJ: I didn’t have any feeling about these one way or another. It was just another way of building. I didn’t have any ideology, in short. When I wrote that about “we may become so feckless as a people” I had no ideology.

JHK: But you were angry.

JJ: But I was angry at what was happening and what I could see first hand was happening. It all came to me first hand. I didn’t have any abstractions about American culture. In the meantime I had gone a couple years to Columbia but I hadn’t been taking classes in American Culture. I sat in on one in Sociology for a while and I thought it was so dumb. But I had a wonderful time with various science courses and other things that I took there. And I have always been grateful for what I learned in those couple of years. But I’ll tell you something that had been worrying me: I liked to visit museums that showed old time machines and tools and so forth. And I was very struck. There was one of these museums in Fredricksburg, Virginia, which was my father’s hometown. He was from a farm near Fredricksburg. I was very struck with the way these old machines were painted. They were painted in a way to show you how they worked. Evidently the makers of them and the users of them cared about how these things were put together and how what moved what so that other people would be interested in them. I used to like to go to the railroad station in Scranton and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing the locomotives and those pistons that moved the wheels. And that interested me how they were moved by those things and then the connection of that with the steam inside and so on. In the meantime, along had come these locomotives that had skirts on them and you couldn’t see how the wheels moved and that disturbed me. And it was supposed to be for some aerodynamics reason, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up and I thought that was kinda sick.

JHK: So the whole streamlining of the 30s bugged you?

JJ: That’s right. So I remember very well what was in my mind “that we become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work.” It was those skirts on the locomotives that I was thinking about and how this had extended to “we didn’t care how our cities worked anymore.” We didn’t care to show where the entrances were in buildings and things like that. That’s all I meant. It was not some enormous comment on abstract American society. And I thought this is a real decadence of some sort.

Haven’t picked up a copy of Death and Life yet?

If you are in Toronto we recommend that you make your way down to Swipe Design: Books + Objects to pick up a copy of the newest edition. They have generously offered to give you 20% off on your new copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities if you mention the City Builder Book Club!

Next week

On Chapter 2 (The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety), we will hear from Steven Dale of Creative Urban Projects.

On Chapter 3 (The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact), we will hear from Stephen Goldsmith of the Center for the Living City and Gillian Mason of the Centre for City Ecology.

And of course, we’d like to hear from you! You can always comment on the posts on the blog, or join the conversation on Facebook and on Twitter.

In Toronto? Check out this event!

The Daniels Faculty presents Jane Jacobs, Undone:

In the 50-plus years since urban thinker, author, and activist Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her ideas about what makes a healthy, vibrant, and successful city have significantly influenced planning and urban design practices across the globe. Jacobs herself has became a mythic — some might even say sacred — icon credited for turning the planning profession on its head.

But as cities continue to grow and evolve, in size, population, and complexity, it is incumbent on us to take a critical look at the influence of Jacobs’ work, including where it may fall short and its relevance in today’s world.

On Thursday, February 9, the Daniels Faculty presents Jane Jacobs, Undone as part of the Daniels Fora series. Moderated by Dean Richard Sommer, this debate will feature Timothy Mennel a senior editor for the American Planning Association (and co-editor of the books Reconsidering Jane Jacobs,Green Community, and Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York), and Margaret Crawford, a professor and scholar known for her work on Everyday Urbanism, a concept that encourages the close investigation and empathetic understanding of the specifics of daily life as the basis for urban theory and design.

Date: Thursday, February 9
Time: 6:30 – 8:00 PM
Location: Isabel Bader Theatre, 93 Charles Street West

Please note: While attendance is free, tickets are required for this event.  Due to the overwhelming response to past lectures, tickets will be honoured until 6:15 PM. If you have not arrived by 6:15 PM, your reservation may be filled by guests on our waiting list.

Learn more and RSVP!

One Comment Add yours

  1. Marco Covi says:

    I can draw many parallels and a few contrasts between U.S. cities and Toronto and European cities from reading the Introduction.

    Interestingly, Jane Jacobs talks about super-projects like major arterial roads and ‘imitations’ of city structures in suburbs like Toronto’s own highrise Towers in the Park in former suburbs are the very things that have begun to go into disrepair and neglect from the 1980’s until present. Conversely, these slab apartments, so called ‘lifeless’ and ‘sterile imitations’ are contrary to Jacobs’ opinions, now being seen as a vital resource of structurally sound affordable housing that with some maintenance and new support services built in their vicinity can rejuvenate disconnected inner-suburb neighbourhoods. Just look at the proposals and work being done by ERA architects and David Miller’s former administration: Tower Renewal. These alternative ideas show great promise of re-usability.

    And also although home to some poor people, neighbourhood mega projects like what has occurred in Toronto’s vast inner-suburbs and all across suburban Europe that Jacobs despises are in no means slums to the extent she is talking about as is the case in the United States. The failure in the U.S. is not just one of planning. Slums were not created here to the same extent as the U.S. Jacobs is correct in many of her assertions about the decay of cities but she fails to explain overall policy in general as a root cause. It is one of job loss due to a lack of legislative protection and zoning in U.S. cities; it is due to racial tension and uprisings from the 1960’s onwards and deliberate policies to keep poor people down and away from the affluent out of prejudice and for fear of diminishing property values. This has not manifested itself to the same extreme at all in Toronto or in many other places where such mega-projects are built. In fact tower-in the park neighbourhoods in Europe are experiencing a resurgence in neighbourhood connectivity by using these buildings as assets and adding basic things like increased lighting and more pedestrian-friendly access ways between buildings. They are also adding some low-cost community services and shops in the properties.

    One thing that I did agree with in the introduction is the categorization that society at large living outside these neighbourhoods sees them as ‘slums’ even though the North Shore in Boston was nothing of the sort and had lower statistical tendencies of dysfunctional neighbourhoods than those classified as normal neighbourhoods. Similarly, the United Way has reported that the majority of landlords in the inner-suburbs are revered by their tenants and have very good and trustworthy relationships with their neighbours. All in all they tend to regard their neighbourhoods as good places to live. We see the same sense of social cohesion with the example of local business and families working together in raising funds to renovate their buildings. Yet many Torontonians living outside these areas and many institutions regard these places as unfavourable and not places where business can be generated preferring instead to move their residence or business to a suburb like Brampton for example. The same is true of Jacobs friend when he speaks of the North Shore.

    I agree with Jacobs about her view of planning in that it should not be paternalistic but rather involve those impacted. However we cannot blame leaders like Howard in England for trying to alleviate terrible social conditions. The intentions were good and the things he was proposing in the garden cities: better housing, more green space for example are noble in and of themselves. The devil is in the details however and he planned for something that could be controlled like a science experiment whereas human ambitions and mobility are hard to predict so it is best to plan for a wide range of flexibility of use in designing the city. Self-contained cul-de-sacs and turning houses away from avenues, separating land uses and constructing super-blocks were details that still cost us today. Most importantly, what can be learned from all this is that participatory planning and engagement with the community should be one of the first steps in the redesign of neighbourhoods.

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