Wednesday, 2 June 2010

"What We See" through Jane Jacobs' Eyes in the Bay Area, Bombay, Brasília and, Indeed, in Burgs Everywhere

The folks at New Village Publishing in Oakland, CA wanted to know if I would review a new collection of essays on Jane Jacobs and her legacy, called What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. Edited by Stephen A. Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth, it contains more than 30 short reflections about what Jacobs meant in Toronto and around the world, how her ideas have been influential, and how events elsewhere demonstrate her perspicacity. It ends with a series of questions about each essay that could serve as points of departure for discussion by community groups about their own particular problems, or as study guides in urban affairs programs.

I said yes to their request, of course. Jane Jacobs is one of my heroes. Her ideas about cities inspired my book Green City: People, Nature and Urban Places, and she is a character in my latest non-fiction The Walkable City: From Haussmann’s Boulevards to Jane Jacobs’ Street and Beyond. When this book arrived I spent several evenings dipping into it. By chance I was also reading James Holston’s The Modernist City, an anthropological study of Brasília which in many respects is the antithesis of what Jacobs’ stood for.

The two books go together like hand in glove, although there is no mention of Jacobs in Holston’s work. The Brazilian capitol which celebrated its 50th anniversary in April, 2010, was conceived as an egalitarian model city inspired by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier exactly at the moment that Jacobs was noting the problems the modernist idea was presenting elsewhere. Brasília features big blocks of residences, grand vistas of public buildings, wide highways for automobiles and no streets.

From the beginning, however, the people who built it and the people who wanted to live there tried to undo the modernist vision. One example which Jacobs would have appreciated is the way storekeepers given space in large buildings where the entrances were to be on verdant parkland, switched their shops’ orientation. The opposite side, facing on the walkways and parking lots intended for provisioning the stores, became the “fronts” because people wanted the bustle of a street-like setting.

It’s interesting that one of the contributors to What We See is Jaime Lerner, the former mayor of another Brazilian city, Curitiba. Beginning in the 1970s, the main commercial streets there became pedestrian, and an integrated public transportation system has developed to become a model of how to woo people away from private car and to stop urban sprawl of both the middle class and the slum variety.

Perhaps because I live in a Canadian city and because I’ve followed Jacobs’ thought for more than 40 years, I found contributions from writers outside North America the most interesting and original parts of What We See. For example, Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava’s essay “The Village Inside” told me much I didn’t know about how Tokyo grew by incorporating villages into the urban fabric. The result was a rich—if sometimes “messy” looking—mix of residential, commercial and industrial uses. Dharavi, the Mumbai slum featured in Slumdog Millionaire, has several points in common with the Tokyo of the early 20th century, the authors suggest. I bet London of the 19th century did too. The lessons to draw from these examples underscore the importance of working on a human scale to integrate different elements in a growing city, and not to raze what’s there or try to build a city on a virgin site as was done in Brasília.

My guess is that people who don’t know Jane Jacobs will find the background essays interesting, though. What We See is a valuable addition to the growing body of work which attempts to continue her work.

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