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“Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving, and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties.”

“Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”

– Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs has been a continuing source of inspiration for me with her prolific contribution to city and civic life, neighbourhoods and urban design.  Her ability mobilize people to action and light their spirits  while being honest of the bleak state of urban centres. While best known for her accessible written works The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States. She is also well known for her activism against anti-human policies and development proposals in cities (such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and in Toronto, Canada Spadina Expressway and the network of highways that were related to this.  Without any formal training in urban planning she observed and intuited the backwards policies that were creating degrading and disempowering places for people in communities and cities and illuminated the roots problems and possible solutions.

Project for Public Spaces Summarized some of Jane Jacobs key contributions:

Cities as Ecosystems
Jacobs approached cities as living organisms and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighborhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city – sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy – functions together synergistically, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. This understanding helps us discern how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.

Mixed-Use Development
Jacobs advocated for “mixed-use” urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being “organic, spontaneous, and untidy,” and views the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.

Bottom-Up Community Planning
Jacobs contested the traditional planning approach that relies on the judgment of outside experts, proposing that local expertise is better suited to guiding community development. She based her writing on empirical experience and observation, noting how the prescribed government policies for planning and development are usually inconsistent with the real-life functioning of city neighborhoods.

The Case for Higher Density
Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.

content: Project For Public Spaces

Jane Jacobs continues to mobilize action through the many talks, books, walks, presentations, projects that have been inspired by her. A popular one is the Jane Walks

Walking the Talk

Image by: Dorota Maria

Following content from Jane Walks website:

Jane Jacobs’ eye was always at ground level, and she felt strongly that no grand planning scheme could substitute for an understanding of people’s everyday experience of the city. For her, the best way to get to know parks, sidewalks and streets was to get out and walk around, especially with some local residents. Jane’s Walk invites city-dwellers to get out of their cars and get connected, to strike up a conversation, and keep it going after the walk over a coffee, on the sidewalk, or sharing a seat on transit.

Started up in Janes stomping ground Toronto, Canada the phenomenon has now spread internationally and is thriving in 68 cities from Puerto Rico, India, Ireland, Zambia and Spain.

Karlskrona, Sweden Walking 2009

Questions to Run your own Walk:

Photocopy a map of your proposed neighbourhood. Think through the stories, places and people you want to talk about, then plot it out.  Here’s some questions to brainstorm:

1. What are some important meeting spaces in your neighbourhood?
2. What spaces are you most proud of in your neighbourhood?
3. What are some important green-spaces?
4. What are some interesting short-cuts you take?
5. Are shops and amenities accessible?
6. Is it easy or possible to walk, bike, use transit or drive a car?
7. Do any buildings have unusual marks or features?
8. Are there any old buildings that have been reconfigured into different uses?
9. Where do you feel most comfortable?
10. Are there any important historical spaces in your neighbourhood?
11. Where do you not feel safe? Why?
12. What is a space that you really dislike?
13. Are there any places that mix retail, business and residential? (mixed use)
14. How do the buildings ‘interact’ with pedestrians at the street level?
15. Are there spaces you would like to see change?
16. Is there an important question or issue that people should talk about?

Market in Tel Aviv

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