What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs


Review by Philip Langdon


New Urban News

Stephen A. Goldsmith an Lynne Elizabeth, editors

New Village Press, 2010, hardcover, 384 pp., $26.95.

When Planetizen conducted a survey last year to identify the top urban thinkers of all time, the Number 1 spot on the list was captured by Jane Jacobs. Whether the choice was correct or not — the poll’s participants were disproportionately Americans — Jacobs certainly remains an inspiration, four years after her death at age 89.

In What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, three dozen writers, mostly Americans and Canadians, try to further develop the ideas and methods of the woman who studied city life, urban form, and economic behavior so productively. The essayists go in many different directions, but four main themes run through the text.

First, we should emulate Jacobs by looking and listening with utmost patience before arriving at conclusions. “We need more simple, direct observation,” declares Chester Hartman, founding executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council in Washington, DC, in an essay that identifies one of Jacobs’ great strengths — her insistence on “seeing everything in the surroundings without prejudgment or screening.”

“Jane Jacobs was a pattern recognizer, a patient heron of a woman who could stare at a stretch of ordinary life that experts had stepped over a hundred times,” says natural sciences writer Janine Benyus. “Cocking her head this way and that, she would watch and wait, tolerating degrees of ambiguity that would drive most observers to stab at early, and false, conclusions.” Many of the essayists in this book argue that those who shape the urban environment need to do a better job of taking in the whole picture if they hope to be useful.

Second, the city, as Jacobs recognized, is a place of “organized complexity.” It serves its residents well only if the complexity is recognized and allowed to flourish. Much of this complexity arises, according to the book’s contributors, through “self-organization” rather than through regulations imposed by governments or other entities. New Urbanism, it’s sometimes suggested in this book, relies too heavily on regulation. Clare Cooper Marcus, an expert in the social and psychological impact of design, contends that New Urbanism is constricted by a “set of strict ‘rules,’” which risk turning it into “a rigid planning philosophy, the likes of which Jane Jacobs argued against fifty years ago.”

Third, sentimentality must be avoided. Jacobs opposed recalling elements of the past in an idealized way, says Mary Rowe, an organizer with the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation who befriended the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “Jane was not sentimental,” says Rowe. She particularly objected to American culture’s “penchant for rural sentimentality.” Rowe thinks the creation of “tidy, stylized communities with front porches and town squares” smacks of artificiality, and is at odds with Jacobs’ belief in permitting “communities to form organically” and to constantly “adjust and transform as needed.”

Fourth, economy is at the heart of sustainable urban life. New York-based commentator Roberta Brandes Gratz says Jacobs was always attuned to “economy in its broader sense of thrift and value, economy of resources — whether natural or man-made.” Gratz believes “the re-densification of cities is the critical issue of the twenty-first century,” and to achieve re-densification properly, it will have to be carried out in a holistic way — reversing the wastefulness of sprawl.

I found some of the essays unpersuasive — especially in cases where the writers failed to delve deeply enough into the implications of their arguments. It’s true, as Rowe suggests, that traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) are often marketed in a sentimental way. They’re depicted as offering a return to a more neighborly kind of life, recapturing some of the virtues of places from several decades ago.  But this is not necessarily make-believe, as the word “sentimentality” would suggest. Many neighborhoods built years ago, in a compact manner with street grids and a greater mix of uses, really did foster more connections among residents. And to some degree, the virtues of those old neighborhoods can be nurtured in new places.

Before critics dismiss communities that emphasize front porches and squares, they should acquaint themselves with what’s been observed — by independent researchers — in TNDs like Kentlands (in Gaithersburg, Maryland) and Orenco Station (in Hillsboro, Oregon). Sociological studies such as Bruce Podobnik’s analyses of Orenco Station (nowhere acknowledged in this book) have found that these in-some-respects old-style communities — with porches, houses close to the street, and shops and gathering places a short bike ride away — do perform better than conventional suburban developments.

I think I like the concept of allowing communities to form “organically,” but how might this idea be implemented in the real-world economy of homebuilders, developers, and financiers? How might the principle of “self-organization” be applied? Answers to those central questions are not presented in any detail. I’m disappointed that some essayists trot out stock complaints about New Urbanism rather than doing what Jane Jacobs would urge: spending time in these communities and seeing how life unfolds there.

Cooper Marcus is right to warn against New Urbanism becoming rigid, and to make a case for the advantages of shared outdoor space away from vehicular traffic, I’m unconvinced, however, that the mobility model she promotes — Davis, California’s network of cul-de-sacs connecting to greenways — is better than the street network preferred by most new urbanists. A system of greenways with paths for walking and cycling may hold advantages for the young, as Cooper Marcus suggests. But R. John Anderson, a new urbanist builder and designer in Chico, California, tells me that the cul-de-sac and greenway network in Davis allows most of that city’s transportation network to be dominated by automobiles traveling too fast for the safety and comfort of pedestrians, particularly the elderly. It is not a panacea.

What We See uses Jane Jacobs as a launching point for discussing so many different topics that the book ends up being a bit diffuse. Some essays focus on Toronto, where Jacobs spent her later decades. These include a discussion of metropolitan governance by former mayor David Crombie and a tour of Queen Street by Elizabeth Macdonald and Allan Jacobs, who hail it as a “great street.” Others essays deal with New York, including a presentation by Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan  on the city’s recent efforts to serve pedestrians, bicyclists, and other users of the urban environment. Still other essays take readers to India, Germany, and elsewhere. This is a book without a gripping central theme. But in its pages you’ll find many interesting if disparate thoughts.