Friday, April 28, 2006

Mourning Jane Jacobs

If you get a chance to read my Urban Outlook column in Saturday’s Observer (it’s in the Opinion section of, starting Saturday) you’ll see – no surprise – I’m a huge fan of Jane Jacobs’ writing.

At a dinner Wednesday I sat next to a smart, accomplished local architect who was quibbling about Jacobs a bit, saying she didn’t have what he called real world experience, hadn’t ever designed any buildings and even at one point said her writing was essentially “fiction.”

I didn’t stab him with my salad fork, but I was tempted.

Obviously, anyone in any line of work learns from doing, whether it’s designing buildings for clients, drawing up city plans, writing editorials or building stone walls. Reality – whether in the form of structural engineering, planning department budget shortfalls, or looming deadlines – makes almost anything that any of us produce less than perfect. It’s true, Jane Jacobs never drew up city plans or designed buildings. And it’s true the Greenwich Village neighborhood that she observed most intently for “Death and Life of Great American Cities” wasn’t – still isn’t – a typical New York City neighborhood. But that doesn’t make her work fiction any more than it makes Lewis Mumford’s work fiction.

Jacobs wanted us to trust our eyes and our ears. She scorned, for example, urban planners’ veneration of “open space” as an abstract good, regardless of whether the “open space” ever got used by real people for anything other than muggings.

She saved some of her choicest invective for traffic engineers. In her 2004 book, “Dark Age Ahead,” she wrote that traffic engineers “have abandoned and betrayed science as it is understood. ... It is popularly assumed that when universities give science degrees in traffic engineering, as they do, they are recognizing aboveboard expert knowledge. But they aren’t. They are perpetrating a fraud upon students and upon the public when they award credentials in this supposed expertise.”

She called it an “incurious profession” that “pulls its conclusions about the meaning of evidence out of thin air – sheer guesswork – even when it does deign to notice evidence.”

One example she gave: She didn’t drive and had to take taxis, which charge according to time and distance. To get to destinations in downtown Toronto using the elevated, limited access freeway invariably cost more than to get to destinations downtown avoiding the freeway. Her conclusion: Traffic engineers had planned roads without realizing that drivers have micro-destinations, not just the macro-destination of “downtown.” You could get to the outskirts of downtown quickly on the freeway, but you were slowed as soon as you hit the exit ramps and all the one-way streets, no-left-turns and other engineer tricks that were supposed to ensure a “speedy trip.” Instead, they’re impediments to getting where you want to go, she wrote, because someone apparently told traffic engineers the journey (speedy travel) matters more than the destination (getting somewhere efficiently).

She wrote: “In the background of this paradigm I see little boys with toy cars happily murmuring, ‘Zoom, Zooom, Zooooom!’ ”

Jacobs wanted people to see the world as it is, not just as they were taught in class. It's a useful lesson.


Anonymous said...

Mary - great column about Jane Jacobs today. She was a pioneer whose work is still relevant today. I agree with her that traffic engineers implemented many "scars" on great cities across the nation. Fortunately, there is a new generation of traffic engineers and planners that recognize that transportation design is directly linked to land use and the quality of life in a community. Charlotte is considering implementing the Transportation Action Plan and Urban Street Design Guidelines which reflect a transportation approach that will help move motorists and improve conditions for all Charlotte residents. While there is a small minority of special interest groups that are opposed to these two projects, I believe Charlotte's City Council realizes the importance of having a sound plan in place to best accommodate the City's growth and transportation needs. Jane Jacobs will be missed but her work continues in communities across the nation that are working to create great places to live, work and Charlotte.

Tom Low said...

I called Jane Jacobs a few years ago when researching for an article published in the Charlotte Observer titled "Your friendly Neighborhood Transit Stop". I asked her what advice she could offer Charlotte regarding transit. Her response was to make sure we put it in the right place. It's great to see Charlotte embracing the idea of running streetcars down and up our neighborhood main streets supporting our neighborhood as seams to community life. Jane would likely approve. Do you think the new crop of transportation engineers are reading her books?