Much of what Jane Jacobs wrote about cities and how they work is still relevant today. But what does this have to do with us? In this blog we explore how Jane Jacobs’ ideas of living cities, transformation and ‘messiness’ is relevant to the work we do at Shared Assets.
Who was Jane Jacobs?
Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006) was an American-born writer and community activist. She observed cities as complex systems, with their own dynamics and logics in books like The Death and Life of Great American Cities. She is perhaps most famous for helping along the success of neighbourhood activism to stop the expansion of expressways and roads in New York and Toronto. Some of Jacobs’ work was met with criticism, namely an oversight of race issues and the problems of gentrification.
Why should we care?
Jane Jacobs focused on cities specifically, but many of her groundbreaking ideas are applicable to land more generally. As Jacobs’ 100th birthday celebrations approached, we realised many of the concepts she explored are extremely relevant to our work.
Here are four reasons why we are celebrating Jane Jacobs’ birthday.
1. A systems approach to cities and the environment
Jacobs saw cities as complex and organic, made up of an intricate web of connections that sustain both people and places, much like an urban ecosystem. She valued what she called the ‘ballet of the sidewalk’, “an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole”.
“We can leverage our individual and collective strengths to build upon the assets of our places so that they will, in turn, support us” - Nan Ellin, What We See (2010)
Her idea that people and the environment are part of the same complex system resonates with a lot of the work we do. Communities and the environment seem to benefit most when they mutually sustain each other, rather than when one is overly exploited or protected by the other.
Parks are an example of how natural and human activities are part of the same complex system. When parks are varied not only in terms of biodiversity but also in economic, social and cultural activities, they have a better chance at being resilient and providing increased benefits for the community.
2. Processes, change and innovation
Cities are constantly changing. Jacobs understood this at a time when large-scale, top-down modernist infrastructure plans were (nearly) universally popular and accepted. She opposed the building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway through her neighbourhood, as she understood the richness of cities stems from interactions and encounters. The richness of these urban ‘cross-pollinations’ has been showcased by the Urban Acupuncture Network, a project showcasing small, creative and effective interventions to improve cities.
Land-based social enterprises can be often a good vehicle for ‘urban (and rural) acupuncture’. With their place-based approach, land-based social enterprises mix diverse activities that go beyond mere environmental maintenance and provide wider social and economic benefits, benefitting the whole community they operate in.
3. Problems as opportunities, messiness as value
Cities are well established as economic centres. Jacobs found that their economic and social value is “because they are inefficient and impractical”, not in spite of these ‘messy’ characteristics that are often regarded as problems. It is thanks to the sometimes chaotic web of connections and interactions within communities that social capital is created. For example, pedestrian traffic – something messy and often unbearable in cities – can help keep us safe, thanks to the watchful eyes that come with it.
We find this attitude of turning problems into opportunities extremely valuable, especially at a time where public budgets are decreasing. It is particularly important to find creative solutions for non-statutory services like the maintenance of parks and green spaces. The projects we support often offer innovative models that, by focusing on opportunity, can solve not only immediate problems but also provide added shared benefits in the long run.
“Lively diverse cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves” - Jane Jacobs (1961)
4. The power of community expertise
Finally, Jacobs’ work is a testament to the power of “ordinary, interested citizens”. Through her community action and writing, she proved the value of the untrained eye and brain in a field like urban design, often dominated by experts. Her legacy of mobilising communities to engage with their surroundings continues today, through projects such as PlaceCheck.
We regularly witness the power of community expertise when supporting groups and organisations who want to take control of the assets around them. Often this ‘citizen science’ is overlooked in favour of the opinions of more specialised, expert individuals. However, we have seen that the deep knowledge communities have of their local area is an irreplaceable resource and it can drive change and innovation.