Jacobs' Way: Finding Light Through the Trees

Book Review: What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. New Village Press 2010.

In the wonderful animated movie from France, The Triplets of Belleville, a little old lady, the heroine, faces down a speeding car of gangsters. At the last possible moment, she holds out her foot, on which she is wearing a large wooden shoe, and upends the vehicle of bad guys, toppling them off a bridge. Gangsters gone for good.

Jane Jacobs, that doyenne of urbanism and fresh thinking, played a similar role in planning and urban design. With the publication in 1961 of her The Death and Life of Great American Cities, this little lady, (who truth be told looked quite a bit like the lady in Triplets of Belleville) upended the great, surging convoy of modernist planning, causing Corbusier-inspired plazas, towers and carefully separated uses to scatter down the freeway of history for the next several decades. Intellectually at least, Jacobs won.

Her methodology was to combine direct observation with an examination of fundamental concepts and values. She applied these same techniques to her pioneering work in economics. She showed how curiosity and intellectual freshness can add to or even beat the expertise and training of the academy. Whatever the subject matter, she was a force and an inspiration.

This year, a new book of essays that could have been called Inspired by Jane Jacobs, has come out under the more winning title, What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. The first part ot the title aptly captures Jacobs' method of direct observation. The second part of the title: "Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs," while not terrible, has a hint of the regrettable canonization that set in around Jacobs even before her death. Jacobs, the original thinker, would not have appreciated this.

Leaving that aside, the contributors are some 30 individuals, many of them well known to readers here. Many of them are friends and colleagues. They include Janette Sadik-Khan, current commissioner of transportation for New York City; Jan Gehl, the master of plazas and street life from Copenhagen; Ron Shiffman of Pratt Institute; Michael Sorkin, urban designer and sharp-tongued commentator; Ray Suarez of public radio and television fame; James Stockard, curator of the Loeb Fellowship at Harvard; and Roberta Brandes Gratz, whose own memoir and book about Jane Jacobs, The Battle for Gotham, came out earlier this year.

The book is a joint publication of the New Village Press and the Center for the Living City. It is edited by Stephen Goldsmith, director of The Center for the Living City and associate professor at the University of Utah; and Lynne Elizabeth, a founder of New Village Press who has a long history of working in architecture and planning for social purposes.

As with any such a book, the contributions are extraordinarily varied, both in tone, subject matter, length and quality. But there are some really good ones, too many to name in fact. My favorites are those that use their allotted space to jump off into fresh observations. They include "Recognizing What Works" by Janine Benyus, who points out that academia trains scholars to be better critics than fresh thinkers. "Rewards run to those who can disprove their colleagues' theories" and "the average scientist spends far more time finding the exception to the rule than finding the rule itself." Sorkin in his foreword titled "Jane's Spectacles," compares Jacobs' "cat's eye" glasses with the famous heavy black ones of her "nemesis," Le Corbusier. Fellow Torontorite Kenneth Greenberg talks of Jacobs' influence on her adopted city in his essay "The Interconnectedness of Things." Sadik-Khan talks of Jacobs' connection to the New York City's "Sustainable Streets" plan.

Jacobs legacy certainly is large. What's troubling is that despite Jacobs' own urging of others to see fresh, her lessons tend to be boiled down into a few simplistic prescriptions, such as praising small streets and old buildings. Even worse, despite Jacobs' victory in the academy, plenty of superblocks, tall towers and unwalkable streets are still being built, including here in New York. This suggests that the forces that shape cities go beyond current fashions of urban design. Still, this book, with such a wide range of contributors inspired by the small woman with the large mind, can help us understand our world better, and thus be better at changing it.