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Reflections on What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, and the lessons for New York and beyond

When I first read What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, from New Village Press and the Center for the Living City, I thought it interesting but a bit diffuse: 35 contributors from around the world, offering reflections and analyses of city-making, larger economic systems, the role of planning, and the specific experiences of cities such as Jacobs' adopted hometown of Toronto.

There was not much overt guidance on the Jacobsian take on gentrification or, as described during the 2007 New York retrospective on her work, oversuccess. Jacobs had said it was simply a matter of making more neighborhoods attractive, so they too attract investment and do not leave a limited few neighborhoods competing with each other.

Easier said than done, but an answer was there, on the night of October 18, when the Jane Jacobs Medals were given out to people who led the restoration and creation of two tremendous parks, both of which have attracted new construction and residents, and driven up real estate values. (Elizabeth Barlow Rogers founded the Central Park Conservancy, and Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded the Friends of the High Line.)

Possible solutions

And then I took another look at the book. In an essay titled "The Interconnectedness of Things," architect and urban designer Ken Greenberg notes that critics saw new realities regarding development and sprawl as signaling a limit to the usefulness of Jacobs' approach (which they saw, incorrectly, as neighborhood-centric). He writes:
Prolific to the end, Jane Jacobs was ever alert to these new challenges and opportunities. Her broad reading of history, economics, environment, and culture had made her finely attend to the ascending and receding patterns of fragility and durability… Jacobs repeatedly called for new sources of funding for cities (including a portion of the gas tax) and for giving cities greater autonomy--initiatives that are being advanced even if turning ideas into reality is proving challenging in the face of inertia and competing political dynamics.
What if parks in New York City were even two-thirds as robust as Central Park or The High Line, both of which rely significantly on private money? Public-private partnerships only work in some neighborhoods, as Patrick Arden explained in an article in The Next American City.

The city, which once pledged a larger (but still tiny) fraction of its budget to parks, lags behind other large cities in supporting parks.

So new funding could come from the city, or it could come from measures like a gas tax. The situation is not fixed in stone.

What would JJ say?

In their introduction, Stephen A. Goldsmith (not the new New York City deputy mayor) and Lynne Elizabeth, write:
Close friends and colleagues agree that they could never suppose what Jacobs was about to think or say at any given moment. She was full of surpasses and was averse to any dogmatic fixation of her views. Therefore, if there is anything Jacobsian for us to emulate, it is to open our minds as observers, to see the continually evolving processes that operate in our world at every scale.
And that's what the book helps do, bit by bit.

The Jacobs influence

In an essay titled "Between Utopias," Toronto playwright and theater director Deanne Taylor writes:
Despite the indifference of City Hall and the burnout of a generation or two of activists, Jane Jacobs' troops are everywhere, falling in love with their city, shaping and being shaped by its character. Some residents' groups are working to pre-empt careless rezoning by drawing up local plans for medium-rise, mixed-use intensification with floor-plate limits; there are young advocates for public space, for cycling, for pedestrians, for billboard control, for car-free market days, for a jet-free lakeshore, for guerrilla gardening, and so on.
In New York

In New York, too there are numerous Jacobsian encroachments, both in the seat of power (the remarkable bureaucrat Janette Sadik-Khan, Commissioner of the Department of Transportation) and in the neighborhoods, particularly around issues championed by Streetsblog.

Indeed, Sadik-Khan contributes an essay on creating public space out of streets, offering a hint of strategy:
It's not easy... given the mindset of citizens who view our streets as car-only conveyances. In fact, we have to present many of our public real improvements to community and business groups as traffic improvement plans…

It is quite clear to me that the quality of public outreach and communication on this project is as important as the public space and transportation benefits of the plan itself.
Sadik-Khan muses that, some 50 years later, some of Jacobs' observations have grown into the commonplace:
I think that's because there has been a slow but growing realization that we cannot build vital, exuberant, and healthy cities with a business-as-usual approach to our streets and streetscapes.
What about the developers?

Despite Sadik-Khan's observation, in New York, in Toronto, and in many other places, the developers still hold sway. Planner (and Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn board member) Ron Shiffman writes:
While some mayoral agencies have honed their activities to achieve the goals outlined in PlaNYC 2030, others seem to have ignored them completely. Ironically, every major development plan supported by or initiated by the city ignores PlaNYC 2030: Willets Point in Queens, Columbia University's expansion into West Harlem, and Atlantic Yards and the Broadway Triangle in Brooklyn, New York.
About AY

Note that, when the book was published in May, Goldsmith (former Planning Director in Salt Lake City) told Gothamist in an interview:
Large scale projects such as transit infrastructure aside, what we see today are developers who like to fake authenticity at a large scale, who appropriate front porches or mixed-use development as though these ingredients will salvage bad ideas. The ability to design and build large scale projects such as Atlantic Yards has not been stopped, and as as result the people of Brooklyn will have to endure still-unknown consequences of these poor choices.
Gratz on preservation and growth

Author and Landmarks Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz points to Jacobs' lessons about conserving buildings. And, in a statement that could have been applied to Forest City Ratner's demolition of industrial buildings-turned condos or the fallow but restorable Ward Bakery, she writes:
It is hypocritical to give a developer LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design] points for recycling elements from a demolished, highly reusable historic building without taking points away for demolishing that building in the first place.
Jacobs, writes Gratz, was not opposed to new buildings, but saw the importance of adapting old buildings for new functions:
Diversity in Jacobs' terms, it must be noted, is not the same as "mixed use" in planners' and developers' terms. An all-new development with the so-called mix of uses that includes residential, commercial, and retail falls into the category Jane refers to as "economically too limited"--and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting and convenient.
And Gratz offers a fundamental warning:
True new economic development follows organic regeneration, it does not cause it. Real estate development follows economic development; it does not cause it.
She even offers a caution to those, like the Regional Plan Association, who endorsed the Atlantic Yards plan simply because it would bring significant density to a place that could support it:
As I see it, the re-densification of cities is the critical issue of the twenty-first century. The advance of sustainable development depends on it. The housing of low and middle-income people depends on it. The strengthening of the national economy from the ground up depends on it. And, of course, the improvement of the natural environment depends on it. But that densification needs to follow Jacobs' principles, not with high-rise barracks for the rich or poor but with "ameliorations and adaptations," along with new additions appropriately fitting in and in scale with what exists.
More cautions

Jaime Lerner, three-time mayor of Curitiba, Brazil, provides another caution:
As Jane Jacobs already pointed out, is the progress that only promotes an increase in scale without considering improvements in quality, accessibility, and identity truly human?
He describes the introduction of the "portable street", to accommodate street vendors, a piece of urban furniture made of fiberglass.

And sociologist Saskia Sassen, warns that we have overvalued the creative class and thus devalued manufacturing, a lifeblood of cities.

Citizen participation?

It takes a contribution from across the globe to suggest there's hope for citizen participation. Matias Echanove and Raul Srivastava, co-founders of in Mumbai, note that, while citizen involvement and public participation are now part of planning, the rhetoric rarely translates into results. But they're hopeful:
This is probably because at the end of the day, real estate interests, and not planning departments, dictate the urban landscape. But even then, it may well happen that developers, tired of having their projects delayed and stalled by defiant neighborhood groups, actually turn to participatory practices--in hopes that dealing with local interests at the conception stage of their projects rather than at the implementation stage may save time and money.
That only happens if and when the neighborhood groups can actually use the approval process or the courts to gum things up.

The Paul Goodman connection

In an essay titled "Nine Ways of Looking at Ourselves," writer and consultant Arlene Goldbard observes: What she has to say is driven by a powerful, positive vision of possibility, and not by her disappointment, however potent, in those whose failures obscure it.

She likens Jacobs' voice to that of Paul Goodman, noted counterculture author of Growing Up Absurd:
The malady Jacobs and Goodman diagnosed half a century ago, the confusion that so easily accepts the substitution of authoritative nonsense of the evidence of our own bodies and minds, has its roots in the gradual disappearance of the democrat's voice in favor of the expert's or the demagogue's.
Indeed, Jacobs inspired citizens like Joshua David to see possibilities in The High Line that the experts discounted.

Placecheck and empowerment

Rob Cowan, director of Urban Design Skills, a London-based consulting and training provider, suggests ways to empower ordinary people:
Built environment professionals too often see the world through prism that their education and practice have created, and too rarely leave their offices to look at the places they are designing and planning. Mystified non-professionals too often defer to them. That is why I invented Placecheck, a first step in looking at a place and thinking about how to change it for the better.
It is now widely used in the United Kingdom and, to some degree, recalls the work of the New York-based Project for Public Spaces, which invites citizen contributions for great--and shameful--public spaces.

Cowan observes:
What was so refreshing about Jane Jacobs' writings sixty years later was that she saw the world not through a narrow professional prism but through the eyes of a journalist and activist. In today's professionalized world, we need all the inspiration we can get.
Positive, not negative

Goldbard offers an intriguing formulation:
Jacobs prescribes attracting foot traffic as a way to drive out excessive automobile traffic, a positive alternative to banning automobiles. In much the same way, creating protected public space in cities for free visual expression would reduce the room given over to advertising. It would also address both of the common objections to graffiti art. But because we are so used to thinking only in terms of stopping things we dislike the punitive approach tends to dominate.

Social psychiatrist Mindy Thompson Fullilove, author of Root Shock, notes that, while Jacobs' Hudson Street in Greenwich Village was preserved, numerous less-powerful neighborhoods, such as largely African-American Northeast in Roanoke, VA, were obliterated by urban renewal.

The oral history from Northeast she quotes instantly for me recalls how David Sheets, the ex-bartender at Freddy's and longtime Dean Street resident, talks about his old block.

Cities are for everybody

Robert Sirman, CEO of the Canada Council on the Arts, observes that, after explaining how to decode cities, Jacobs showed that we all had a stake in them:
As simple as this… may seem today, Jacobs drew a conclusion that was anything but simple: if a city's built form impacts all who pass through it, then all who pass through have a vested interest in the decisions that underlie how the city is built.

Jacobs made a case for interconnectedness that seems commonplace now, but wasn't for a long while. In the first half of the century, writes famed urban designer Jan Gehl, the general rule was to separate residences, work places, recreation, and transportation.

Architect and educator Hillary Brown describes the concept of "codevelopment," citing projects that integrate infrastructure and use natural systems. In Iran, a bridge functions as a dam. One New York City example: a water filtration treatment plant beneath Mosholu golf course in the Bronx.

Innovation consultant Janine Benyus, in an essay titled "Recognizing What Works," takes inspiration from a thinker who never got a college degree but thought deeply about cities, economics, and systems:
Jane believed that there was really only one body of knowledge, and that our pursuit of separate silos was illusionary.
Jane's Cup of Tea and sentimentality

In an epilogue titled Jane's Cup of Tea, civic and social organizer Mary Rowe reflects:
Jane was not sentimental. I had always understood the word to describe a kind of saccharine-sweet, closing fondness for something in the past, but Jane corrected my misunderstanding of the term. To be sentimental was to remember something in an idealized way, which was anathema to her. Many of Jane's reflections about why government policies (and their makers) were so often anti-city were rooted in her observations of this culture's penchant for rural sentimentality.
Were some Atlantic Yards opponents sentimental about not changing neighborhoods? Yes. But they also came up with practical potential solutions.

Are some Atlantic Yards supporters sentimental? Isn't attachment to 10,000 phantom jobs sentimental?


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