Three things journalist Jane Jacobs taught us that we city dwellers should never forget

Three things journalist Jane Jacobs taught us that we city dwellers should never forget
Jane Jacobs

Every year during the first weekend in May--around the time of the late Jane Jacobs' birthday--I have to keep reminding myself that Jacobs was a mere journalist and not an urban planner.

Even though her writing (her most famous and influential book was "The Death and Life of Great American Cities") and activism had as much impact as any urban planner in the world.  She was instrumental in stopping New York from becoming Los Angeles by stopping a highway that would have traversed Manhattan, not to mention one that would have traversed the island's Washington Park.  Seriously.

She took on her urban planning icon nemesis of New York, Robert Moses. And even though he got most everything he wanted during his tenure--like the building of slab after slab of new concrete obelisks in place of old buildings filled with history and character in New York City--she beat him when the chips were really down, and she saved Manhattan from a lot of wrecking balls and highway construction.

We remember her every year around her birthday in big cities around the world (including Chicago) with free tour-guide led walks in interesting neighborhoods that pay some sort of homage to Jacobs' ideas.  For information about the Chicago walks this weekend, click here.  In Chicago, the free walks are sponsored by the Friends of Downtown, a nonprofit that I am on the board of.

And next week, a new documentary called Citizen Jane: Battle for the City opens about her life and her ideas and her work.  I saw a preview last night and it's quite good.  One of the points the documentary makes:  journalists know how to make good arguments.

What exactly should we keep in mind regarding Jacobs' ideas here in Chicago, as Rahm builds more and more concrete cookie cutter slabs?  As he passes out the TIF money to his developer pals/contributors so they can make money, raising crane after crane after crane after crane in the name of progress--and keeping the unions that support him very busy.

First, that urban safety--something we in Chicago need desperately on our thoroughfares--comes from lots of people mingling in the street at all different times of the day, coming and going, and doing things of all kinds in the neighborhoods.   It doesn't come from security guards stationed here and there inside buildings, or from police in patrol cars who happen to be tending to business on the other side the district.  It comes from us and them, all together doing things out in the open, and keeping our eyes on the street.

Second, the people who traverse the city streets--something the vast majority of us do these days and more and more will do it as time goes on and cities get denser--should be people of all sorts.  Not just "your own kind."  There should be economic, social, ethnic, age, intellectual and every other kind of human diversity in the neighborhoods to keep them strong and livable.  Everyone on the street should have a different set of eyes on the street.

Third, the buildings in a neighborhood should be smallish and livable, some in good shape, some not, all from different eras, and in tune with street life, in general.  They should maximize street life--not hide from it.  Housing, government buildings, retail stores, schools, park field houses, business offices--every kind of activity that transpires in buildings should all be there together, all mixed in as a group, providng diversity and street life and security during every hour of the day and night on the street.

So think about Jane Jacobs this weekend, city dwellers, and see if your neighborhood measures up.  If not, see what you can do to change things.

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