Vi­tal Lit­tle Plans: The Short Works of Jane Ja­cobs Edited by Sa­muel Zipp and Nathan Stor­ring

A revered ‘stu­dent of cities’ op­poses big-money prop­erty schemes and puts street life first

The Guardian - Review - - Non-fiction - Chris Hall

The need for Jane Ja­cobs and her clear-eyed hu­man-scale ur­ban­ism is as strong as ever. Her mas­ter­piece The Death and Life of Great Amer­i­can Cities (1961) de­scribed in bril­liant de­tail the in­tri­cate ecol­ogy of how a city works (New York) or does not work (Detroit). Though Ja­cobs never wrote fiction, the book was more like a nov­el­is­tic rendering of lived street life than a schol­arly text. She was, as she once de­scribed her­self, a “stu­dent of cities”, more in­ter­ested in the ef­fects of build­ings than their de­sign.

Vi­tal Lit­tle Plans col­lects for the first time Ja­cobs’s in­ter­views, speeches, talks and short pieces of jour­nal­ism – and there is much in this lu­cid and per­sua­sive an­thol­ogy that res­onates to­day. In her es­say “Down­town Is for Peo­ple”, from 1958, she crit­i­cises the lack of va­ri­ety in cities: “No­tice that when a new build­ing goes up, the kind of ground-floor ten­ants it gets are usu­ally the chain store and the chain restau­rant.” Later, be­moan­ing the pri­macy of build­ings over peo­ple, she writes: “The logic of the projects is the logic of ego­cen­tric chil­dren, play­ing with pretty blocks and shout­ing ‘See what

I made!’” This could well ap­ply to Lon­don’s cur­rent sky­line, with its Walkie Talkie build­ing, Cheeseg­rater and Gherkin – a VIP cock­tail party guarded by cor­po­rate bounc­ers.

Ja­cobs was fas­ci­nated by what made cities safe and in­ter­est­ing, in stark con­trast to what plan­ners wanted, which was to tear down and re­build. For her, cities were living things. In Death and Life, for ex­am­ple, she rhap­sodises: “The street grapevine news sys­tems that have their gan­glia in the stores.” It was Ja­cobs who stopped the pow­er­ful prop­erty de­vel­oper Robert Moses and his plan for an eight-lane el­e­vated ex­press­way that would have cut a swath through lower Man­hat­tan, from the East river to the Hud­son (it’s of­ten for­got­ten that he also had plans for a mid­town ex­press­way and one along 125th Street).

In­deed, Ja­cobs was set against all forms of top-down ab­strac­tions of the likes es­poused by Moses, and by Le Cor­bus­ier and Bauhaus. She stressed the im­por­tance of street life, the ad­van­tages of short city blocks, and the need for a mix of uses and for den­sity, for shared pub­lic space rather than atom­ised pri­vate space – all rad­i­cal ideas at the time.

Ja­cobs was born in Penn­syl­va­nia and moved to New York when she was just 18. Af­ter a suc­ces­sion of sec­re­tar­ial po­si­tions she landed a job at the Ar­chi­tec­tural Fo­rum in the 1950s. It was here that she se­ri­ously started to look at how cities func­tion. “The ar­chi­tects, plan­ners – and busi­ness­men – are seized with dreams of or­der,” she wrote, “and they have be­come fas­ci­nated with scale mod­els and bird’s-eye views.” Her pre­scrip­tion to those shap­ing and form­ing the built en­vi­ron­ment was clear: for­get try­ing to im­ple­ment the boule­vards of Paris in North Amer­i­can cities and get out and walk, look for their strengths and ex­ploit and re­in­force them.

In 1968, Ja­cobs and her fam­ily left her beloved Man­hat­tan over fears that her two sons would be drafted to fight in the Viet­nam war, and they moved to Toronto. In a 1969 piece, she wrote that she was of­ten asked if she found Toronto suf­fi­ciently ex­cit­ing, com­pared with New York: “It’s al­most too ex­cit­ing! Here is the most hope­ful and healthy city in North Amer­ica, still un­man­gled, still with op­tions.” Just as she bested Moses, so she helped to kill off the Spad­ina Ex­press­way.

In Ground Con­trol (2009), Anna Min­ton pointed out the hypocrisy

in­volved in Bri­tish politi­cians namecheck­ing Ja­cobs and her work on di­ver­sity in cities and the “nat­u­ral surveil­lance” of the street while ac­tu­ally tak­ing an op­po­site ap­proach. Their stance was more akin to that of Os­car New­man and his the­o­ries of de­fen­si­ble space in which strangers are seen as the en­emy.

For some ur­ban the­o­rists, Ja­cobs was the en­emy, and there is some­thing to the crit­i­cism made by Ni­co­lai Ourous­soff that “she never un­der­stood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its free­ways and its strange in­ter­weav­ing of man­made and nat­u­ral en­vi­ron­ments”. Per­haps she did un­der­es­ti­mate the darker strains of our psy­chol­ogy – at some level we em­brace the alien­ated, CCTV-con­trolled realm we have al­lowed our­selves to ex­ist in.

Yet the Gren­fell Tower dis­as­ter in June showed the dis­as­trous con­se­quences of ig­nor­ing lo­cal com­mu­nity groups, of top-down bu­reau­cratic ar­ro­gance. And with Brexit, Lon­don may also be about to pay the cost of its over-re­liance on the fi­nan­cial ser­vices sec­tor. For all sorts of rea­sons, gov­ern­ments may well have no choice but to em­brace Ja­cobs’s ideas.

544pp, Short, £16.99

To or­der Vi­tal Lit­tle Plans for £14.44 go to book­shop. the­guardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

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