May 13, 2016

On Jane Jacobs: Contrary to the Contrarian

Lawence Solomon responds in the Financial Post to Sam Sullivan’s criticisms of Jane Jacobs (here).

Jacobs FP

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Jacobs’ critics also marked her 100th anniversary — but by bemoaning her influence. As former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan told CBC, his city is only now beginning to recover from an unfortunate love affair with Jane Jacobs. In his view, her ideologically anti-high-rise, anti-development and anti-change thinking led to sprawl and unaffordable neighbourhoods except for the very few who got in early and then kept others out, profiting at their expense.

“She was very much against towers; she was against the highway, high-rise city,” Sullivan lamented. “Her own home (in Toronto’s Annex) is in an area that should have been densified a lot earlier. One of my favourite moments in life was when I got to sit on the porch with Jane Jacobs and talk about porches. I was such a big fan of hers but over time as I tried to densify Vancouver, I ran into people who were advocates of Jane Jacobs’ ideas and I realized then that there were some negative parts (to her legacy).”

Sullivan is confused, as are her devotees on the left who think she held the anti-development views they hold dear. Jane Jacobs was not “very much against towers.” I was a colleague of hers, and in literally hundreds of conversations that I had with her over a period of 25 years, not once did she ever express an animus towards high rises. Jane did object to high-rise towers for public housing — but then, she objected to all public housing — and she did object to the useless green space that planners forced on high-rise builders, calling such “tower-in-a-park” developments economically sterile. But Jane also thought some areas needed more high-rise towers. Her views on high-rises, as on everything, were never ideological; they were matter-of-fact, geared to solving real-world problems. …

Sullivan seems not to understand that Jane Jacobs’ legacy has been appropriated (misappropriated, really) by those determined to impose the type of results Jane favoured, not realizing her desired results — such as diverse neighbourhoods — can’t be imposed by planners. The misappropriators do harm, too, by failing to understand that Jane’s thinking transcends cities to include economic development and wealth creation generally. Because human ingenuity is unlimited, she believed, the planet is blessed with “unlimited resources.” In a message her fans of today would not want to hear, Jane concluded that planning for resource shortages is not planning for sustainable “economic development at all. It is planning for stagnation.”

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Full article here.

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  1. Understanding Jane Jacobs …

    On the 100th anniversary of Jane’s birth, many people are taking what they want from her writing but would she agree with all of them? I also think she’s a much more complex thinker ….

    For example, some argue she was against high rises. However, if I recall from her visits to BC, she quite appreciated how Vancouver tamed modernist high rise development with sensitive design, the use of fine grained Georgian townhouses for podiums and rationalizing two slender point towers per block to preserve privacy, allow views and sunlight and to reduce shadowing. This unique approach provides ‘Eyes on the street’, great landscaped streets, and opportunities for mixed uses at grade. A made-in-Vancouver success story.

    I am searching for any comments she’s written about Vancouver’s recent development in particular.

  2. On my Jane’s Walk in New Westminster last week, I gave a couple of short readings from Death and Life, and referred to it as “Jane’s Bible”. Much like the Bible, it is full of interesting insight, quotable pieces, advice (good and bad), compelling anecdotes, revolutionary ideas, strong imagery, occasional self-contradiction, and (most importantly) it could and has been interpreted by various people in very different ways – so it must be referenced with caution.

    I’m just glad than on her 100th birthday we are talking about her and her writings, because that means we are talking about Cities and the important role they play in our economy, and in our lives. This ongoing debate may be her lasting contribution.

  3. I always found it odd on a site where there is continued slamming of “white-haired NIMBYS” that posters would idolize Jacobs.

  4. From reading Jacobs I came away with the impression that she would argue strongly with many that claim her to be their saint.

    It’s much like the idolizing of JFK when history tells us that the far less revered LBJ in fact, did far more.

    1. His being shot, (after he deftly avoided global nuclear war), might have something to do with the limits if his legacy.

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