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Jane Jacobs Revisited

It’s not surprising to see criticism of Jane Jacobs emerge so quickly after her passing; what may be surprising, to some, is that the criticism may be as valuable as Jacobs’s work itself as a metaphoric resource for advocacy in support of consumer and public interests online. To see that value, though, it’s important to look at criticism from different quarters, and perhaps to perform a bit of rhetorical grafting:

Take Leonard Gilroy, at WSJ’s Opnion Journal:

Politicians and planners would do well to commemorate Jacobs by revisiting her work. Despite the best efforts of well-intentioned planners, you can’t “create” a vibrant city or neighborhood. The best cities and neighborhoods just happen, and the best thing we can do is to step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs.

who is talking about what might be called the urban “content layer,” and pair his interpretation of Jacobs with Nicolai Ouroussoff in the Times, who draws attention to the urban infrastructure on which Jacobs’ vision depended:

As it turns out, what the New Urbanists could not reproduce was the most critical aspect of Ms. Jacobs’s vision, the intimate neighborhood that is built — brick by brick, family by family — over a century.

For those who could not see it, the hollowness of this urban planning strategy was finally exposed in New Orleans, where planners were tarting up historic districts for tourists, even as deeper social problems were being ignored and its infrastructure was crumbling.

The answer to such superficiality is not to resurrect the spirit of Robert Moses. But in retrospect his vision, however flawed, represented an America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure — roads, parks, bridges — that binds us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives.

And you get . . .

1 thought on “Jane Jacobs Revisited”

  1. What Jane Jacobs Truly Saw

    To employ as a rhetorical platform the death of Jane Jacobs (“What Jane Jacobs Really Saw,” Leonard Gilroy, May 2) to assault all of modern day urban planning, and the planning here in Portland Oregon in particular, is both disingenuous and erroneous. How do I know this? As a student of architecture and urban design, through 15 years as an urban planner in Portland, and through specific conversations with Jane when she visited Portland less than two years before her departure.

    The history of planning here in Portland is not that of “Modern planners, imposing their static, end-state vision of the City”. Nor does what’s occurred here run counter to Jacobs’ vision. In a recent interview, she stated that “Portland’s a place that gives me great hope.”

    What Portland may have taken most directly from Jacobs’ legacy is an unfailing commitment to community-based planning. This has been true at the street, neighborhood, city, and regional scales. Our remarkable form of excessive democracy has generated a genuine partnership between neighborhoods, the development community, and government. The result has been an active, rich, economically vibrant urban environment. This is hardly the result of the “authoritarian recipe for policy intervention” Mr. Gilroy imagines. He’s correct in emphasizing Jane’s statement that “no other expertise can substitute locality knowledge in Planning.” Embracing this premise has much to do with Portland’s success, prompting Jane’s observation that Portland “obviously has a very strong sense of values that is immediately recognizable.”

    Jane Jacobs visited Portland more than once. In her most recent visit, she was asked repeatedly what she thought we might do differently or better. As sharp-tongued and stunningly articulate as ever, she consistently refused to take the bait. She found Portland’s planning results to be successful and replicable.

    It’s precisely the power and success of this Portland model that concerns those such as Mr. Gilroy, who maintain that the government and community should have no role in establishing visions and plans for our cities and towns, that we should just “step out of the way of innovators and entrepreneurs” (i.e. – builders and developers). I would propose that it’s not who does the planning, but why and how the planning’s accomplished, that’s critical to generating fitting and lasting environments. The intentions and results here are community driven, sensible, and appropriate, prompting Jane to note on her visit that “In Portland, a lot of good things are being done….People in Portland love Portland, that’s the most important thing. They really like to see it improved, and not with a lot of gimmicks, but with good intelligent reasons.”

    Finally, for Mr. Gilroy, who believes the results of planning in Portland are “dismal and dramatic”, a few parting words from another recent interview with Jane. “Never underestimate the power of a city to regenerate. And things are not as bad as you are picturing it. For example, Portland – lots of constructive things are happening there.”

    Jeff Joslin
    Portland Oregon

    Jeff Joslin, an architect, urban designer and planner, has been managing urban design and planning functions for the City of Portland for over a decade. He’s currently Land Use Manager, administering urban design, design review, and historic landmarks programs for the City.

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