For transit lovers and planners across North America, and perhaps around the world, Jane Jacobs — the great opponent of highway builder and ultimate mid-century planner, Robert Moses — has achieved reverential status. I fall into that group; forever grateful that Jane acted to save Greenwich Village, and forever inspired by her insights in the Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Two generations of urbanists, planners, activists and legislators have been influenced by Jacobs’ startling review of the obvious. With an eternally curious and unassuming eye Jacobs reintroduced the beauty and intelligence of mankind’s greatest creation, its cities. At the same time, Jacobs who was anything but dogmatic, has become the tabula rasa to be written upon by the sustainability movement, in its varied facets. Some people complain Jacobs is cited too often.
The new essay collection in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs illustrates the breadth of her influence and the genius of her observation. While Jane was not a transportation theorist her descriptions of how cities operate and what makes for successful urban planning (or lack thereof) directly implicates sound transit policy. The way we lay out our streets, the way we get to and from work, and the way we integrate uses of buildings into blocks, neighborhoods and cities all influence how citizens ideally move and how their choices are influenced.
With 30 authors contributing essays the reader is guaranteed to be exposed to scholars and activists and thinkers that she was not previously aware of. Many of the essays sparkle, such as Janette Sadik-Khan’s (the NYC Commissioner of Transportation) ode to Jane on the importance of streets, and Janine Benyus’s application of biomimicry to the ideals of Jacobs. However, at just over 300 pages, too many authors and concepts are given barely a gloss, where an in-depth application is deserved. At the same time, ideas which claim to exemplify Jacobs but really seem to challenge her premises are given equal space, such as Clare Cooper Marcus’s discussion of planning around children, but emphasizing the cul de sac. I really wish there had been opportunity for more of the notable writers in this book, including former Curitiba mayor Jaime Lerner and Columbia sociologist Saskia Sassen, had been given the space to more completely apply their and Jane’s ideas to concrete situations.
What the book does well is remind the reader that what Jane saw was not simply Greenwich Village or Toronto, or battles to avoid paving highways through historic neighborhoods. Rather, what Jane saw was mankind’s greatest creation, the city, for all of its incredible beauty, sophistication, integrity, fragility, and mystery.
Many of the authors hammer home the point that most Americans and most inhabitants of this planet now live in cities, and that is only going to be more true going forward. Urban planning, protection and innovation is not some mere academic field, but an essential civic responsibility in this age. The earth is growing in population and traditional resources are diminishing; we need to reinvent the way we live not for some liberal ideal of sustainability, but because sustainability is required to support the balance between the needs of the human population and their planet.
Transit is merely a piece of the puzzle for this movement. To improve our cities, working, efficient, economical and widespread transportation systems are key. Jacob’s New York would not work without the MTA and many newer American cities are less enjoyable due to the constant auto traffic. However, transit systems are only integral to cities that are designed to support them, cities that prioritize edifices and communities as Jane saw them.
It is clear that the way to reinvent our societies is not radical, it is to appreciate what Jane saw, that organic cities provide for the needs of their residents in efficient and enjoyable ways. What Jane saw that was most powerful-and indeed radical for her time, and to some degree contemporary society-is that cities are beautiful in how they function and allow residents and businesses to interact. The answer to some of our deepest problems is one of our oldest creations: living, livable cities.