Urban prophet

Jane Jacobs, the icon for making cities more people friendly, passed away at age 89 on April 25.

In her books, the American turned Canadian claimed North American cities had lost their heart by building to accommodate vehicles rather than people — too many expressways, too many skyscrapers, creating a sterile environment devoid of things that had made cities great in the past. 

Despite being known as a world authority on the urban environment, Jacobs didn’t possess academic credentials as either an architect — her husband Robert was an architect — or urban planner. Yet, her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was heralded as a masterpiece of observation. In this ground-breaking book, she criticized conventional wisdom that called for a cure to urban blight by bulldozing and replacement with new buildings in the name of urban renewal.

In her foreword to the Modern Library edition of her book, she said she had initially wanted only “to describe the civilizing and enjoyable services that good street life casually provides — and to deplore planning fads and architectural fashions that are expunging these necessities and charms instead of helping to strengthen them ... (but) one discovery led to another, then another and lured me into my subsequent life’s work ...

“Experts at the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued. They were deemed old-fashioned and selfish — troublesome sand in the wheels of progress. It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly,” she wrote, alluding to her own experience.

She claimed that students, whether foot or car people, were being rigorously trained as “antistreet and anticity designers and planners: trained as if they were fanatic car people ...,” because their teachers had been similarly trained or indoctrinated. In  fact, she said the whole establishment from politicians to planners had been similarly indoctrinated.

Although there have been some changes occurring in recent years, Jacobs said with the depletion of “arrogant old gatekeepers ... Anticity planning remains amazingly sturdy in American cities,” which is embodied in thousands of regulations, 

bylaws and codes, as well as bureaucratic timidities owing to accepted practices.

It is these practices which have not allowed streets to be narrowed for sidewalks where they should be — on streets where pedestrian traffic is bustling and plentiful, wherever downtowns are not deserted 

after offices close, where new buildings have been sensitively inserted among old ones to knit up holes and tatters in a city neighbourhood so that the mending is invisible.

She argued that urban planners and traffic planners — she hated one-way streets — do not consider how cities work but how they should function.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1916, Jacobs left for the bright lights of New York during the Great Depression, where she worked as a journalist, documenting life in the city, learning the examples for future books and urban activism — she led the protest that caused the cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway and helped kill the Spadina Expressway in Toronto after she moved there in 1969.

In 1974, she became a Canadian citizen and was later appointed to the Order of Canada in 1996. 

One can only speculate what Jacobs would have felt about modern-day Winnipeg, but the mid-sized North American city does contain some elements that she would have approved of and other elements that she would have regarded with great disdain.

There has been a sensitive approach to older areas of the city with the advent of conversions into residential and commercial space of heritage buildings in the Exchange District — a national historic site — something she would have looked upon with great favour. These unique character buildings were preserved because of the slow growth of Winnipeg in the past. In other cities, where more rapid growth occurred, old neighbourhoods were torn down to make way for the new buildings in the name of progress, a movement she deplored. 

It could also be said that she would have approved of the redevelopment of Waterfront Drive, the present goal being to make it a people-friendly place with a mix of commercial and residential in new condominium developments that add to, rather than detract from, the character of the area.

Because Jacobs obviously felt old was often better than new, it is hard to delve into what she would have felt about such new or newer buildings and facilities such as the CanWest Global Ball Park, MTS Centre or the Manitoba Hydro office complex. But, the fact that they bring more people to the downtown may have been enough for her to accept them as a necessary evil.

But, Jacobs would have abhorred that Canada’s most windy corner was closed to pedestrian traffic years ago and thus was created a vehicle-friendly, rather than people-friendly, thoroughfare for rapid travel from one area of the city to another.

Although she had said suburbs are “ghastly communities,” Jacobs may have expressed a bit of leeway for planning in Waverley West because it will eventually have plenty of green space and a healthy mix of high-density residential housing and commercial buildings. 

She also probably would have approved of the provincial government’s proposed use of profits from Waverley West land sales for the development of inner-city infill housing.

On the other hand, Jacobs may not have approved of the Kenaston underpass and widening of streets for the convenience of suburban living.

What could have attracted Jacobs to Winnipeg is that it possesses a collection of old and new buildings that are being maintained and re-used. 

When in San Francisco in 2004, she pointed out to San Francisco Chronicle columnist John King that the presence of a mix of old and new buildings was the 

saving grace of that American city. 

“This is a city you can love,” Jacobs told King.