Jane Jacobs heresies

Jane Jacobs heresies

Mayor David Miller has issued a proclamation making today, May 4, 2007, Jane Jacobs Day. Jacobs, author of the seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is one of the most influential urban theorists of the last half-century. In Toronto she is considered sacred: canonized for her role in stopping the Spadina Expressway in the early 1970s, she is the patron saint of grassroots urban activism. In polite company it is far easier, and more socially acceptable, to take the Lord’s name in vain than Jane Jacobs’. So if, like me, you are the kind of person who enjoys farting in church, then today has the potential to be a very, very good day. Let’s get the fun started.

Her saintly status is, I would argue, a disservice to her and to the city that continues to evaluate its own progress through the lens of the question, “What Would Jane Jacobs Think?” Jacobs was a social thinker. She left an intellectual legacy of ideas—and ideas ought to be debated and adapted, not treated like immovable universal truths. If her ideas are allowed to ossify, so will the city. Here’s two links worth reading to prod the discussion.

In an article first published a couple of years ago and now available on his Web site, Ivor Tossell—who doubles as Toronto Life’s Urban Decoder, a fine job, but one that does not adequately showcase the talent of one of Toronto’s best young writers—draws a compelling link between the ascendancy of Jacobite thinking and the trendiness of downtown condo developments. He makes this link via an amusing disgression on the subject of Sesame Street. The crux is that, while there’s nothing faddish about Jacobs’ thinking, her ideas have been appropriated in the service of faddish living.

And earlier this year, The New Yorker published a short essay daring to suggest that Robert Moses—the “evil genius” expressway builder whose career Jacobs essentially killed along with the never-built Lower Manhattan Expressway—wasn’t all bad. Critic Paul Goldberger argues that, whereas Jacobs encouraged people to see the virtues of (and love) the small stuff, Moses’ strength was that he grasped the concept of regionalism, and Manhattan owes much of its continued success to his works.

Toronto is in the midst of tumult right now: its urban form is changing into something very different from what it used to be. It needs as much big-picture, regional thinking as it needs attention to detail. Jacobs looms so large in our civic imagination, sometimes we favour the latter at the expense of the former. Instead of WWJJT?, perhaps we ought to ask How Would Jane Jacobs Keep It Livable? Trinity-Spadina councillor Adam Vaughan is particularly adept at posing the question this way, and then acting on the answer. His campaign to make condos more family-friendly is a perfect example. As a result, instead of confronting change with trepidation, he keeps her ideas fresh. Happy Jane Jacobs Day.