It's been more than four years since urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs passed away, but the issues she focused on during her life seem more pressing than ever: how to build successful neighborhoods and cities, the economic survival of small business in the face of development, and the effects of mega-projects like Atlantic Yards. This month, New Village Press published "What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs"- we asked Stephen Goldsmith, one of the books editors, about Jane Jacobs' life and legacy.
Here in New York, Jane Jacobs is best remembered for killing the Lower Manhattan Expressway project, and writing "The Death and Life of Great American Cities". Why is her work still important today? Jacobs' work is important today because her common sense approach to city building can empower others to be the experts of their places. She was ahead of her time in many ways, and particularly her understanding of the interconnected nature of our social, environmental and economic systems. Jacobs changed the way we think about cities and understood that cities are complex eco-systems that, when functioning well are resilient, cauldrons of innovation.
People who learn about her observations of the ballet of the street for instance never see our sideswalks the same again. The city becomes a stage, a place where our human interactions--both direct and indirect--animate our lives and our places. Another great example of Jacobs' importance is the way policy makers and law enforcement personnel understand the importance of what she described as "eyes on the street." After the failed bomb attempt in Times Square earlier this month a number of articles cited Jacobs' wisdom, and how a couple of street vendors saved the day. Her importance is more important now than ever before because she empowers citizens to trust their instincts.
In "Death and Life", she argued that lively mixed-used neighborhoods are the key to successful cities. If she was still alive today, what do you think she would think of the state of our city? One thing that those of us who had the privilege of time with Jacobs knew was to never second guess what she might think about anything. She was full of surprises, unexpected insight and never dogmatic. One thing I can share is that during her last visit to NYC in 2004 she remarked how vibrant she found the city to be. She came to deliver the first annual Lewis Mumford lecture at City College and filled the hall--standing room only.
Jane Jacobs' urbanist philosophy seems to have largely been embraced by the current generation of city planners. Where do you think her ideas have had the greatest physical impact here in New York? One way to observe how her ideas are having the greatest impact, and there are many examples to be sure, are in projects such as Majora Carter's efforts with Sustainable South Bronx , and Alexie Torres-Flemming's work with Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice. One might even make the case that the High Line project is an outgrowth of her sensibilities.
Consider the reclamation of these abandoned, neglected places and the new life they have, the way these places have learned to become something new. Jacobs ideas have catalyzed ways of thinking about preservation, about integrated uses that even manifest themselves in such things as local manufacturers capturing downstream waste for new materials, such as Ice Stone in Brooklyn. The integrated way she viewed cities, economies, ecologies and people encourages creative responses to complex problems.
In fact, her ideas seem so dominant that only very rich or foolhardy developers would try to get a Robert Moses scale project done in the city now. Do you think we've lost anything because of that, like the ability to design and build large, necessary projects? Books like The Battle for Gotham by Roberta Brandes-Gratz and Tony Flint's Wrestling With Moses have addressed these questions in ways that are stirring public debate about this once again. Large scale projects such as transit infrastructure aside, what we see today are developers who like to fake authenticity at a large scale, who appropriate front porches or mixed-use development as though these ingredients will salvage bad ideas. The ability to design and build large scale projects such as Atlantic Yards has not been stopped, and as as result the people of Brooklyn will have do endure still-unknown consequences of these poor choices.
While Jane Jacobs is most often remembered as an Urbanist, she seemed more proud of her work in economic philosophy. In "The Economy of Cities" she argued that cities must either grow by constantly spinning of new industries from their vibrant industrial base, or else slowly wither and die. What do you think she'd say about the future of New York as a global city? Again, its impossible to know what Jacobs may have thought about this. One thing to keep in mind however is that she observed the idea of "web thinking" long before the Internet was with us, so the idea of a global city is different now than it was even 25 years ago. Cities function in real time, on the ground as people move through time and space, and therefore it is the intimate connection to place, to people, to proprietor, to city park, to the temporary hopscotch chalked to the sidewalk that give cities their life. In the aggregate neighborhoods make cities, and neighborhoods make economies which in the aggregate make a gross domestic product. Maybe on scale that Jacob's thought of cities the future of a global city might be no different today than it was 1,000 years ago. I wish she was here so we could ask her.
Not many New Yorkers know that Jane Jacobs moved to Toronto in 1968 and stayed there for the rest of her life. Why did she leave? Was she happy there? Did she miss New York? Jacobs left New York to protect her boys from being drafted into the Viet Nam war. She loved Toronto and Toronto loved her, and her legacy their today is as strong or stronger than her legacy in NY. According to some of her friends she never missed living in NY, but certainly missed some of its rich pieces. Jacobs loved cities, NY may have been the city she knew better than any other. But after she spoke here in 2005 she took a trip to Portland, Oregon which was another city she loved and influenced. I have to say that from my observations she wasn't someone who seemed to miss things, she was so curious about the moment, about ideas, about the new.
One of the biggest criticism of Jane Jacobs' work in reviving the inner city is that it led directly to gentrification. Certainly the West Village of today is a much less diverse place than the one she lived in 50 years ago. Did she worry about the problem of gentrification? Or have a solution for it? Jacobs was very concerned about the problem of gentrification, though it would be a mistake to suggest that her work led to the gentry's choices. She actually spoke to us about finding ways to safeguard this in the future, and was particularly concerned about the fate of immigrant communities who start businesses in neighborhoods, find success and as a result can't afford the prices their success creates.
As part of our work with the Center for the Living City, the non-profit organization she encouraged us to create before her death in 2006, she thought it would be a good idea for us to see if we could find ways to help immigrant business owners and others find ways to own the real estate where they work. She felt that ownership was essential to safeguard against the kind of gentrification that forces the innovators out of their places.
One of Jane Jacobs' most intriguing ideas is that rural communities, towns and villages are really just spin-offs of cities- they only exist because people in cities are around to buy their goods and services. And yet, so much of our societal resources seem to be devoted to supporting life outside of cities- farm subsidies, suburban mortgage subsidies, etc. Did Jane Jacobs see any way to change that, or any hope for it changing in the future?In Jacobs' last book, Dark Age Ahead, she observed the phenomenon of suburban sprawl and and raised some important questions. She saw for instance why third-generation farmers were choosing to sell their parcels to housing developers due to the difficulties of financing their production, paying for new machinery and the relentless debt it created. Selling their land would supply their progeny with nest eggs and assist with their own retirement. What Jacobs saw in terms of the changes outside of cities was that they might be seen as interim strategies, "a transition between land in agricultural use and land densely enough occupied to support mass transit, to form functional and inclusive communities, to reduce car dependency, and to alleviate shortages of affordable housing."
Among lessons learned from Jacobs' observations of the morphology of any place, is that they exist in space and time, and are always transitioning. Nothing is static. She imagined that if we could intensify uses in suburbs these places would possibly add greater value to the urban areas that gave birth to them in the first place. Interestingly, she also saw how the role of more intense kinds of urban agriculture were on the horizon, and we are certainly seeing that from coast to coast.
If Jane Jacobs was alive today, what issues do you think she'd be working on? What fights would she be fighting? We know from conversations we had with her that she was very concerned about how we can support the the businesses of immigrant communities long-term, making sure that their efforts to support themselves did not ultimately lead to the gentrification of their neighborhoods and force them out. This was happening in Toronto and we know it is occurring elsewhere, so this was an issue of concern that she would have continued to work on with us.
As for fighting, it is easy to imagine her raising hell about the fate of Atlantic Yards for many reasons, and about wholesale proposals for what she referred to as cataclysmic changes in any community, especially places that suffer like New Orleans. You know how in the last paragraphs of Death and Life of Great American Cities, she writes, "Does anyone suppose that, in real life, answers to any of the great questions that worry us today are going to come out of homogeneous settlements?" I think instead of fighting she might have been advocating; advocating for diversity in all things as ways to ensure the health and resiliency of people, places and our interconnected ecosystems.