What would Jane do?

This article first appeared on Open Journal on May 16, 2017. Image courtesy of Open Journal.

This year’s Open House Melbourne pays homage to American urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs in a special program that uses her ideas as a catalyst for conversations about Melbourne’s future.

While American urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs wrote her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, the concepts she explored in it are as relevant today as they were then. Jane’s ideas will form the basis of a special program of talks and events at this year’s Open House Melbourne, entitled ‘What would Jane do?’.

A great legacy

Jane Jacobs was a relentless and radical urbanist, activist and writer. While she had no formal training in urban planning, she spent decades observing, studying and documenting life in big cities. At the centre of her ideology was the belief that people made cities, not buildings, and for cities to truly flourish its residents needed to be actively consulted and engaged in its development.

Jane’s legacy is an enduring one. In 2005, a group of reputed urbanists and activists came together, and in conjunction with Jane, established The Center for the Living City. While Jane passed away aged 89 in 2006, the Center – whose purpose is to ‘expand the understanding of the complexity of contemporary urban life and, through it, promote increased civic engagement among people who care deeply for their communities’ – continue to champion her work.

This involves producing works that build on Jane’s own, such as What we see: Advancing the observations of Jane Jacobs, and sponsoring community-focused events such as workshops, exhibitions and Jane Jacobs Walk, which are free, self-organised walks led by passionate locals from around the world who show others the cities and neighbourhoods they know and love. (Jane’s Walk was among the events held as part of Open House Melbourne this year.)

More recently, the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, released earlier this year, offers an insight into Jane’s passion and determination as she fought to help preserve historic New York districts from the bullish city planner Robert Moses during the 1960s.

The art of observation

Jane was an avid observer. Whether it was in New York, where she lived on Hudson Street in a townhouse in the West Village during the ‘50s and ‘60s, or one of the many other American cities, including Baltimore, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago and Detroit, which she visited, explored and learnt from. Jane appreciated the unique and complex ways in which the streets, neighbourhoods and districts of big cities organically came together and functioned.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane wrote: ‘Under the seeming disorder of the city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvellous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance […] The ballet of the city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.’

People first

Jane’s criticisms of the era’s urban planners centred on their not understanding the connection required between people and place. She notes: ‘The look of things and the way they work are inextricably bound together, and in no place more so than cities.’

Too often a developer’s vision was superficial and didn’t address the complex needs of the community it was meant to be serving; where they saw ‘slums’ Jane saw a dynamic and diverse community. She believed that urban planners needed to engage residents to better understand and address their needs. ‘It is futile to plan a city’s appearance, or speculate on how to endow it with a pleasing appearance of order, without knowing what sort of innate, functioning order it has. To seek for the look of things as a primary purpose or as the main drama is apt to make nothing but trouble.’

While city planners believed residents to value ‘emptiness, obvious order and quiet’, Jane countered: ‘Nothing could be less true. People’s love of watching activity and other people is constantly evident in cities everywhere.’

While they created out of the way parks for children, Jane was adamant that the sidewalks of the city’s streets better served this purpose: ‘In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn – if they learn it at all – the first fundamental of successful city life: people must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to one another.’

Jane said the same of privacy. It did not require high fences and walls, instead ‘a good city-street neighbourhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people’s determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment, or help from the people around. This balance is made up of small, sensitively managed details, practised and accepted so casually that they are normally taken for granted.’

She said the ability to walk through streets safely came not from inanimate objects, such as streetlights and security cameras; they only presented the idea of security. Instead, it was created through the watchful eyes of people in the area, that know it and each other, and places where activity occurs at different times throughout the day and night.

Jane’s approach to urban planning was community-focused. ‘Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of the city, are its most vital organs,’ she wrote. ‘Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.’

The four conditions of a successful city

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs surmised her body of work into four ‘indispensible’ conditions, which she said were required to ‘generate exuberant diversity in a city’s streets’. She described them as ‘the most important point this book has to make’.

They are:

  1. The district [which Jacobs defined as ‘large, sub-city in size, composed of one-hundred thousand people or more in the case of the largest cities’], and indeed many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. They must ensure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  1. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  1. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  1. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

Jacobs ends: ‘Given the development of these four conditions (or the best approximation to their full development that can be managed in real life), a city district should be able to realise its full potential, wherever that may lie. Obstacles to doing so should be removed.’