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Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs died last week at 89, and in the Toronto neighbourhood where I live, people talked of little else for several days. There was a sense of loss in the talk, but no profound sadness or grief. Jacobs led a long and unusually happy life, and one filled with the kinds of achievements few get to savour. Among the most immediately savourable was the neighbourhood she saved from freeways and the idiocies of “urban renewal”–the Annex area around Dooney’s Café that she lived in after she moved to Toronto from New York City . It’s a neighbourhood that regularly displays the sorts of urban qualities she valued most: It is dynamic, not too glitzy, with everything on a human and walkable scale. She was both liked and revered around here, and she seemed comfortable with the former, and not very interested in the latter. She was fond of saying that keeping the neighbourhood in which she lived intact was her life’s greatest achievement.

Perhaps her greater achievements, though, were to make the term “urban renewal” a social obscenity across most of Western civilization, and to halt, by sheer intellectual force, the post-World War II socio-economic juggernaut that nearly transformed cities across this civilization into bizarre and unlivable slavery to the private automobile, a transformation that very nearly made our inner cities, which have been and remain the social and economic engines of Western societies, uninhabitable. Still, the most important books she wrote—The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) and Systems of Survival (1992) constitute a progressively complex articulation of common sense and the economic, social and architectural civilities on display in the streets of the Annex—all of which remain chronically invisible to our political and economic macrosystems.

I first encountered Jacobs’ work around 1980, while I was working as an urban planner in Greater Vancouver. I was part of a group that Montreal native Harry Lash brought together to create Greater Vancouver’s Livable Region Plan, which was Canada’s most ambitious—and last—master planning exercise, one that somehow managed to be ill-starred, daffy and brilliant all at once. Jacobs hinted that we were on the right track in using local aspirations and citizen insights as our primary policy database, and that the unco-ordinated binary systems of regulation and provision—transportation, housing, and industrial development, each of which tended to ignore the concerns and goals of related subsystems—were our enemy. I argued about Jacobs so vociferously with my colleagues, most of whom were receptive but ill-equipped to apply her thinking to anything substantial, that it destroyed my career. When push came to shove, their professional training—such as it is—won out. To them, her ideas were ultimately unproven and unmatrixable, and they usually ended up dissing her lack of empirically-proven research.

There was no defence against this, because Jacobs was never much for plodding research, and her proofs were too meagre to survive at a bureaucrat’s table even though they made exquisitely obvious sense on the street. She was a philosopher, and her thought moved by a leapfrog of insight and inductive reasoning drawn from street-side observation. When your professional well-being is predicated on securing the growth trends of the immediate past and projecting them dumb-ass into the future, what Jane Jacobs had to say simply didn’t translate. It is often noted that Jacobs disliked urban planners, and nearly everyone who followed her career has witnessed one of her storied skewerings of them at public events. She sensed their functionary hostility, even in the obsequious ones who drooled on her coat-tails.

I saw a fair bit of her around the neighbourhood during the 15 years I’ve been here, and I read and reread all of her books. I heard her speak in public at least a dozen times, and I listened carefully because she always delivered some nuance I didn’t have. But I had just one conversation with her, an interview I did for an architectural magazine in the late 1990s, during which I did far more talking than I should have. She was then at the point where she spoke slowly and a little hesitantly because her street wits had begun to flicker, and it took me a few minutes to realize that the deeper intelligence she possessed remained undiminished. I shut my trap, and she imparted a piece of wisdom to me that is of incalculable value and utility. She told me that the future is inherently unpredictable and surprising, and that attempts to predict and manipulate it result mostly in idiocies and human misery. There are, she said, more than enough idiocies and miseries in the present to put right, and this is what people of good will should devote their energies to. She practiced this with remarkable consistency throughout her long life, and it is a crucial part of her genius.

While I was in her house that day—we conducted the interview at a table and chair in her living room—I was struck by how much it reflected her characteristic attention to detail and specificity, and how little it gave to abstract design. It was a private physical proof that she believed that urban design ought to be dictated by dynamics and by the individual’s earned accumulations of thought and experience: a vase here; a painting there; a child’s toy on the windowsill; some framed photographs, small ones of people, larger ones of cityscapes, each clearly a memento of something upon which her generous attention had alighted, and which was now part of her mind. I could see, in the kitchen, where a thick tendril of ivy trailed inside through the window, and was being accommodated. She saw me looking at it, laughed, and explained that it had wanted in, and since winter hadn’t arrived…

To a fashionista, the house would likely have seemed an incoherent mess of bric-a-brac; chaotic, without flow or sufficient attention to good taste. To me it was an extension of Jacob’s fine mind, and that virtually everything I could see was part of a narrative far more coherent and complex than any Mies van der Rohe corporate slab. It worked because it encouraged that combination of intellectual comfort and labour by which she lived. To me, that was perfect design. And as human beings go, so was she.

1048 w. May 2, 2006

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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