The eyes have it
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which put the brakes on mid-century urban renewal and changed the course of land-use planning in the US, Canada, and beyond.
Now that New Urbanism is generally acknowledged to be the most influential urban planning movement of the last two decades, it seems a good time to explore the connections between Jane Jacobs and the new urbanists.
Some in the planning elite and academia, including recently Timothy Mennel of APA’s Planners Press and Jill Grant of Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, criticize Jacobs for spawning the New Urbanism. The critique is a puzzling one, because both Jacobs and the New Urbanism enjoy great popularity among professional planners.
Consider the two top positions in Planetizen’s 2009 poll of top urban thinkers of all time — Jacobs and pioneering new urbanist Andres Duany.
But it’s also odd in that, as Grant acknowledges, there are few references in new urbanist writing to Jacobs. If New Urbanism derives from Jacobs, as Mennel contends, why don’t new urbanists talk about her more?
As someone who has written on this topic for the better part of two decades and participated in the last 16 Congresses of the New Urbanism, I can say that new urbanists are second to none in their regard for Jacobs. New urbanists share many of the same values as the late reformer — notably a belief in mixed-use, diverse, human-scale neighborhoods.
Yet reverence for, and avowed sharing of values with, Jacobs is common — even among non-new urbanists. So what is the direct connection?
Frank Gruber, an attorney and blogger based in Santa Monica, notes that new urbanists take what nearly every other planner or urbanist working today takes from Jacobs: “a set of pro-urban values. Love of the city. What was revolutionary about Jacobs in 1961, 15 years into a half-century of sprawl, was not that she stood up to Robert Moses, urban renewal and Modernism, but that she proclaimed her love for city life.”
Observation is the key
True, but I believe the connection runs even deeper. If there are similarities in the writings of Jacobs and new urbanists, it is because they share an underlying method of understanding the city: Intense observation.
What gave Jacobs the confidence to take on Robert Moses and other modernist planners who, as North Carolina associate planning professor Thomas Campanella puts it, “drank the Corbusian Kool-Aid” of urban renewal? Jacobs not only saw things differently with her own eyes, but she habitually observed, measured, and walked the city. She took nothing for granted and internalized everything around her. If the theories did not fit her observations, she trusted her senses.
Cut to the dawn of the New Urbanism, around 1980. Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk were certainly deeply familiar with Jacobs’s writings, but Death and Life would have been useless as a blueprint for designing Seaside, Florida, or any of the other early new urbanist projects by other designers.
Instead, Duany and Plater-Zyberk visited cities, towns, neighborhoods, and streets that they liked — not only observing but also measuring them in detail. That has been the New Urbanism method ever since — dealing with every kind of community plan, from hamlets to big-city downtowns.
New urbanists verify everything with their own eyes, again and again, as Jacobs did. I call this “observational urbanism.” It is a powerful method and it stands in direct opposition to academic theorists who trust ideas and intellectual fashion more than their own observations and experiences.
Let’s hope that the planners of the next half-century continue to revere Jacobs and reject the siren song of intellectual theory divorced from the senses and common sense.
Thanks to Jane Jacobs, “observational urbanism” has steadily gathered momentum for five decades. We need it to grow stronger still.