Tuesday, September 29, 2009
The weird wisdom of urban chaos
A half century ago an urban activist and writer from Greenwich Village in New York changed our world. Attacked as plain talking and a "housewife", her detractors of that day strangely assumed vigorous urban life could thrive without both. She spoke of mixed land uses and social diversity when others didn't. She reminded us safe, walkable streets are the life force of the city and thick networks of relationships are the oxygen to that life.
She taught us to pay attention to the importance of the simple things: the laundromat, the corner store, the street mailbox, the coffee shop, the park bench. She cautioned us not to dismiss the fun gifted us by murals, street artists, musicians, buskers. Some call this "urban disorder". They do not truly see the city as she did.
She triggered the demise of dismal highrise apartments to house the poor. In New York and later in her new city of Toronto, she led (and won) protests against neighborhood-eating freeways. She applauded heritage buildings when others tore them down. She launched a thousand barbs against soul destroying "urban renewal" - now long gone. She is responsible directly for the creation of crime prevention through environmental design - CPTED - and by extension, the Design Out Crime movement.
We take for granted these ideas today. We should not.
This activist, "housewife", and urban visionary is Jane Jacobs. Her best selling book Death and Life of Great American Cities set the world of city planning and urban development afire. I just read a fascinating biography, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary by Alice Alexiou.
Her message is still relevant today for those who love vital, safe, and enriching cities.
In my blogs of late I am struck by Jacob's legacy. Consider bus stops in New Orleans, graffiti artists in Montreal, moss walls in London, and painted intersections in Portland. It is all very Jacobsian (she'd probably hate that term)
Jacobs warred against those from above dictating to those below. Her weapons? Demonstrations, petitions, letters...but mostly sharp words and clear-headed thinking from direct observation.
The last word to Jane:
The least we can do is to respect - in the deepest sense - strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.