Thanks, Jane Jacobs

While reading James C. Scott’s Seeing Like a State, I encountered the ideas of Jane Jacobs. A few moments of investigation reveal that it’s the anniversary of her death back in 2006. So unprepared and unworthy though I feel, I’ve cobbled together these thoughts as a little ode to her.

For context, I’m feeling pretty post-city these days. I realize such a wholly dismissive attitude betrays unsubstantial thinking—I can’t really defend this point of view; for now, it’s pure sensibility. But the basis of my distaste for urban life is how easily our natural reality is shoved aside make room for constructs, whether brick and mortar or social. 

It’s just hard to situate one’s self close to nature when one lives in a city. Drawing associations between one’s actions and one’s impact requires a cognitive stretch that exhausts the resources of even the more conscientious among us when buildings and HOAs get in the way. So the feedback loops that can be potentially quite short and obvious when one lives unsupervised in the countryside become sprawling and obscured in urban places. Outside of cities, ignoring our impact on nature requires cognitive dissonance. Within them, it’s just the path of least resistance.

But if I ever again live in a city I hope it’s one with a little of Jane Jacobs’ blood flowing through its proverbial veins. In an era still shaped by High Modernist thought, which prescribed upon cities a gridwork of legibility and planned utility, Jacobs advocated for a design ethic that caused people to collide in a bustle of informal activity and exchange. Concepts we take for granted today, like the value of urban density, social capital, and mixed-use—ideas at the heart of New Urbanism—owe Jacobs a debt of gratitude for being their champion.

Jacobs’ vision for city life is one of involvement and connectivity, a metaphorically mycelial dynamic wherein the otherwise fracturing effects of roadways and city blocks are overcome with sensible design--where the planning institutions facilitate humanity over legibility, and natural activity over controlled predictability.

This is why, in a foray of admitted geekery, I gave a shoutout to Jane Jacobs in a recent panel discussion at Raleigh City Farm. The beauty of that farm is that it’s situated at the nexus of otherwise distinct parts of the city. What used to be an unproductive empty lot is now a lively, multidimensional hub of economic and ecological activity. Perennial permaculture plantings flow in and out of highly productive annual row crops. Youngsters with a savvy hydroponics enterprise rub shoulders with old folks born and bred in Raleigh. When citizens buying a bike or a bottle of wine at the nearby shops (which arguably would never have found a footing had the Farm not moved in first), they encounter land, which as Henry George reminds us is the basis of all economy… and all life. And because the farm exists at a common corridor, they also meet neighbors of vastly different socioeconomic backgrounds whom they may otherwise never encounter.

When co-founder Josh Whiton and I sought the council of a stalwart of the organic farming milieu some years back, before a single spade was dug into the urban soil, we were asked if we couldn’t find a better place outside the city to grow food. Our advisor missed the point, yet we couldn’t exactly articulate why the value of visibility, of access, of farming at the edge made more sense than growing somewhere with a more reliable lease and more fertile soil.

But now we don’t have to—the farm speaks for itself. And I think we have Jane Jacobs to thank for the intuition that more interaction, more activity, is better. The farm is robust, yet interstitial, and serves to direct citizens’ attention to the rural land beyond city boundaries that provide the bulk of what we eat. Raleigh City Farm thus produces more than what it can grow on its 1.3 acres by serving as the lynchpin of an urban-rural connection that extends many miles beyond the heart of Raleigh.

What Jacobs contributed to the disciplines of architecture, urban planning, and city politics can hardly be overstated. Yet beyond her specific ideas, it’s the nature of Jacobs’ contribution that most stirs me. Jacobs didn’t “belong” to any one of the disciplines she reformed. She had no formal training in architecture or city planning. Her college education was postponed, her vocations were iterative, and the observations that formed the basis of her fresh perspective were garnered through gazing out the window of her home and office with eyes unclouded by cumulative lenses of sanctioned thought.

Critics questioned her authority (though she claimed none), and deemed her a wrecking ball, threatening the towering contributions of centuries of urban theory. But Jacobs made no apologies. She had the self-assuredness to acknowledge that she was witness to something others missed, and did not demure when others pulled rank. It was her very lack of enculturation of contemporary thought that allowed her to see what others could not.

I wonder about Jane Jacobs. What went into her making that enabled her to be so bold—to support her thoughts with confidence, promoting her ideas without necessarily promoting her self?

Jacobs also resounds in my mind as a resolution of the tension between the individual and the community. To Jacobs, this was not a zero-sum equation: her cultivation of her own observations contributed directly to the integrity of her community. She managed a complementary arrangement when so many of us feebly sacrifice our obligation to neighbors at the altar of our own self-promotion and success. Similarly, her ideas were borne of a specific place, yet relevant to cities well beyond. 

Jacob's ideas have made cities more habitable for us all. But maybe more importantly, she models a posture relative to institutional authority that leverages the individual mind to the benefit of the community. Thanks, Jane.

For more on Jane Jacobs, check out this NYT bio and of course, her Wikipedia entry.

Jane Jacobs, photographed by Christopher Wahl.