Cities have been places of refuge, innovation and industry; they can also be considered refuges of crime, pollution and consumerism. They are huge population centers and do have an impact on human life and the environment. Whether we see them as a destination for a better life or an environ to escape to reconnect to nature and a better life it seems that cities have long been part of human history and seem to be sticking around for now. So we’d best learn to deal with them.
Jane Jacobs was an influential activist whose seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities influenced many of her peers and some of the next generation of urban activists, developers, city planners and environmentalists. A new book from New Village Press has collected essays from leaders in these different fields into one volume entitled What We See – Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs. The book is an acknowledgment of her influence, a tribute to her vision and offers a glimpse into what the future could be for cities if these writers have their way. It was good to see that the book is, to an extent, global. The essays touch on conditions in Canada – specifically Toronto, Jacobs adopted city – and on the designs and aspirations of cities in Germany, Japan and India.
The book is divided into six sections: Vitality of the Neighborhood; The Virtues of Seeing; Cities, Villages, Streets; The Organized Complexity of Planning; Design for Nature, Design for People; and Economic Instincts. Each section has four or five essays. They are written, for the most part, in a conversational manner that’s accessible to everybody. A few of the essays have the potential to make the reader a little glassy eyed (for me, those were in the last section on city economics – not my cup of tea), but you don’t necessarily need specialized knowledge to grasp what the writer is conveying. That quality is an important one in a book such as this, especially as these essays can motivate people to become more active in their communities and cities. If you were left with the feeling that only individuals with engineering and planning experience could do anything about the state of cities that would be contrary to the purpose of the writings and the spirit of Jacobs herself. After all, she did not have any professional training in any of those fields.
Jacobs was interested in seeing the good in cities and not focusing on what’s bad. After reading these essays it becomes apparent that most of Jacob’s philosophy towards cities was observation; simply take note of reality. Seeing the history of a city, the kind of people in the city, seeing where they interact – all those things shape a city and should be accounted for in new growth. And this new growth needs to be organic.
Of course, observation implies time and patience. That quality seems to be quite lacking in the leadership of many cities. Some of the writers touch on this, too. Deanne Taylor, in “Between Utopias,” points out that the cost of activism is “thousands of life hours.” She describes the decision Toronto needs to make, which applies in principle to many cities: “the city will have to decide if it wants a heart or a mall.” The mall may be faster. And Ron Shiffmanin “Beyond Green Jobs: Seeking A New Paradigm” states, ” Unfortunately, as of this writing the city [New York] has chosen to ignore innovation and pursue instead a familiar and politically comfortable path, one that ignores the needs and imperatives of our time.” All the writers here have some excellent visions for their cities, alas, it does seem that they also share this same obstacle.
Section Five, Design for Nature, Design for People had some fascinating discussions. Janine Benyuswrote “Recognizing What Works: A Conscious Emulation of Life’s Genius” and it proved to be an exciting discussion of biomimicry and its use in city development. Biomimicry is an emerging scientific field that has so many insights to provide it’s unreal. The discipline studies the designs in nature and then copies, or mimics, those designs to solve human issues. For example, solar cells are being designed that follow the sun just like leaves can. She made an interesting comment in her essay. “Energy is sipped and waste is unthinkable in the natural world.” This reminded me of children. They eat and drink whatever’s in sight, with no real thought about it being gone tomorrow. As parents, part of raising children to maturity is teaching them the concept of finite resources. So the natural world is mature, humanity – and its cities – is not.
This is a very enjoyable book that can make you evaluate the way you and your family live and can make you take a closer look at the city or town in which you live. Perhaps this will enable you to see it in a new light or at least understand it better.