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Remembering Jane Jacobs |

Remembering Jane Jacobs

Bill Steigerwald
| Saturday, April 29, 2006 12:00 a.m

Jane Jacobs, who died Tuesday in Toronto at age 89, was universally revered as North America’s great expert on cities and the way they live, die and work. As her Encyclopedia Britannica entry rather stuffily puts it, she was a “Canadian urbanologist noted for her clear and original observations on urban life and its problems.”

Jacobs established herself as an enemy of the urban planning establishment 45 years ago with her masterpiece, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Part literature, part journalism, part sociology, it showed how cities are organic, messy, unplanned human “ecologies” that thrive on economic, architectural and human diversity, dense populations and mixed land uses.

I interviewed her by telephone in the summer of 2001:

Q: What is a city and what should it look like and be like?

A: Well it should be like itself. Every city actually has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the dismal things is when you go to a city and you see it’s like 12 other cities you’ve seen. That’s not interesting and it’s not really truthful.

Q: Is a city like Toronto inherently any better than a city like New York or any other?

A: I hate to be picky, but I don’t know what you mean by “inherently.” From its very beginning, it was going to be better or it was going to be worse than another one• No, that’s not true. Cities make themselves up as they go along. They aren’t predestined to be terrific or awful.

Q: Cities aren’t planned, they what — spring up, evolve, grow?

A: Yes. It’s what people do in them. That’s what makes them. What people make of their opportunities.

Q: If I can paraphrase everything I know that you’ve said about cities, it is that cities should be places where people use space in different ways at different times throughout the whole day.

A: That’s right.

Q: And that there shouldn’t be segregated uses — in terms of time or space?

A: Right.

Q: People complain that suburbanites are too dependent on cars. Yet the newest suburbs are so heavily zoned and so carefully laid out. The uses are segregated so much — you live there, you work there, you play there, you go to school over here. If you didn’t have a car, you couldn’t possibly live in the suburbs because of the way they’re laid out.

A: That’s right. Your children couldn’t get to school. And they couldn’t get to their dancing lessons or whatever else they do. You’re absolutely dependent on a car. It’s very expensive for people, especially if they need a couple of cars.

Q: You aren’t anti-car, are you?

A: No. But I do think that we need to have a lot more public transit. But you can’t have public transit in the situation you’re talking about. Here’s where this mixture of stuff comes in. Actually, some people can’t avoid constant use of the car but they minimize distances by managing to work in the suburbs too. This sprawl you’ve been describing, it can’t go on indefinitely. How’s it going to be changed without penalizing people• I think it’ll happen gradually and incrementally by densifying these suburban areas. But not densifying them with the same uses that they have. That won’t work. What has to be added is what is not there.

Q: What do you think you’ll be remembered for most• That you stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people who said you are destroying the lifeblood of these cities?

A: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I’ve contributed is, “What makes economic expansion happen?” That’s one of the chapters in my latest book, “The Nature of Economies.” This is something that has puzzled people, always. I think I’ve figured out what it is — and expansion and development are two different things.

Development is differentiation — new differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing. Just about everything — a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes — all of those are differentiations. And all of those are development.

Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing. I’ve gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote about “The Economy of Cities,” I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. I had a little diagram in the back of the book about why it does that. As it replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn’t import less. And yet it has everything it had before.

Q: It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s a bigger, growing pie.

A: It’s a bigger pie. That’s the actual mechanism of it. The theory of it is what I explain in the “Nature of Economies.” I equate it to what happens with biomass. The energy, the material that’s involved in this doesn’t just escape the community as an export. It continues being used in a community, just as in a rain forest the waste from certain organisms and various plants and animals gets used by other ones in the place.

Q: It becomes denser and more diverse.

A: That’s right, and it is linked with new development, because the new kinds of things that are being contrived are able to feed off of each other. … The trouble is, people have always been trying to put development and expansion together as one thing. They’re very closely related. They need each other. But they aren’t the same thing and they aren’t caused by the same thing. I think that’s the most important thing I’ve worked out. And if I am thought of as a great thinker, that will be what it is.

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