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Supporting Life in the Urban Context: The Grounded Wisdom of Jane Jacobs

Beth Porter

Beth Porter works for L’Arche Canada in the area of Educational Initiatives and Publications. She has a particular interest in the dynamics that make for a compassionate and inclusive Canadian society.

What are physical characteristics of hospitable neighbourhoods? The houses often have front porches where people can sit out and exchange a wave or greeting with their neighbours—rather than the protruding garages of suburbia that may give the much vaunted privacy developers advertise but isolate people from those who live next door.

Well-known spiritual writer Henri Nouwen used to tell a story about a moment in an elevator of an elegant hotel in a large American city where he was giving a lecture. Henri had invited his friend Bill, a man with an intellectual disability, to accompany him. As they and other hotel guests stood silently crowded into the elevator, each careful to avoid eye contact, Bill suddenly remarked to the man next to him, “Your shoes look pretty dusty! I guess you better get a shoeshine.” In the awkward silence that followed, Bill added with a little chuckle, “Mine do too… I guess we both better get a shoeshine!” The man laughed, the other people laughed, and the ice was broken. For the rest of the elevator ride the people chatted with one another. It was the kind of moment Jane Jacobs would have relished--a mini-drama of the triumph of the forces that give life over those that lead to dullness and death, for life flows through connection between human beings.

Bill’s inner freedom and strong desire to relate to others enable him to create community in the moment among strangers. People like Bill help counter the common tendency to suppress the human impulse to connect with others. As Jane Jacobs often stressed, to be healthy a city needs many places and opportunities for people who are different to connect, whether in a passing ‘Hello,’ an interaction with a local merchant, the neighbourly sharing of gardening lore, or the caring visits with which friends sustain one another.

Much of Jane Jacob’s life was given to writing and speaking about the elements that go into creating vibrant cities-- places of vitality and not dreary places where people live in isolation, depressed and lonely and vulnerable. When she died in 2006, she was widely extolled for her ever fresh voice which brought common sense and the concrete everyday observation of what works for people, to the complex and hyper-sophisticated world of urban social engineering. The “doyenne of urban planners,” the Washington Post proclaimed her.
Jacobs believed that automobiles, much more than the oft blamed television and drug trade, destroy the quality of neighbourhoods. The prevalence of the car discourages walking, creates huge traffic congestion and parking problems, and encourages both the kind of sprawling, low-density suburban development that is almost always poorly served by public transit and the neighbourhood-destroying extension of expressways across the urban landscape.
Already in the 50s and 60s, when everywhere new expressways were slicing up old neighbourhoods and unimaginative housing projects becoming the rage, she saw cities as a source of life and hope and not as problems. Reflecting her belief in the creativity residing in cities, she wrote of slum clearance, “We must regard slum dwellers as people capable of understanding and acting upon their own self-interests, which they certainly are. We need to discern, respect and build upon the forces that exist in slums themselves, and that demonstrably work in real cities.” (L & D, 354)

Jacobs consistently opted for the micro over the macro, convinced that if we look after the former the latter will take care of itself. If we create healthy neighbourhoods, a city will be healthy; if cities are healthy, the benefits will flow into the larger entities. She believed that there is a natural order to human community. She argued, “big cities are natural generators of diversity and prolific incubators of new enterprises and ideas of all kinds. . . .[for] in cities so many people are so close together, and among them contain so many different tastes, skills, needs, supplies, and bees in their bonnets.” (L&D, 156-57)

In her early essay, “Downtown is for People,” she noted that the most interesting urban open spaces are “those in which several currents of life come together” – people of different classes and children, who add an indispensable quality of noises and excitement. (p 170) Over the years, she continued to stress the value of a great diversity of people mingling and able to contribute their gifts and perspectives. In 1998 she co-edited the anthology Cities of Difference, which examines interactions of race, ethnicity, class, gender and able-bodiedness with political, economic and cultural forces. One important essay, Bendan Gleeson’s “Justice and the Disabling City: The Social Oppression of Disability,” describes an emerging approach that does not locate the cause of disablement in the impaired body or reduced physical access but in the material organization of society, and that looks toward “an inclusive but not homogeneous ideal of social justice.” (NY: Guilford Press, 89-119)
Higher density of population in urban neighbourhoods lends vigour, and the resulting sociability and commercial vitality are closely linked to the survival of the vulnerable in times of crises. She points to a study of similar Chicago neighbourhoods one of which had 90% fewer deaths than the other during the 1995 heat wave. The district with the low death rate had enough people to support thriving businesses and public gathering places. People felt safe leaving their apartments, knew neighbours and shopkeepers, and took refuge in local air-conditioned spaces. In the other neighbourhood, the population density had fallen to the point where many buildings had been boarded up. People feared venturing out, in any case had no where to go within walking distance, and often neither knew nor were known by their neighbours.
In her last book, Dark Age Ahead (2004), Jacobs identified five pillars of a healthy society.* The first is “the family and the community, which is the context for a family and essential for raising the next generation…. Membership in a functioning community makes it possible to learn to deal civilly with people who are different from ourselves and to teach children these important life skills.” While neighbourhoods need certain tangible resources supplied from outside—utilities, public transit, institutions—it is the intangible resources that are all important. People need to be able to meet and glean information, for both social and practical purposes, from a wide variety of others; and they need the help, encouragement and trust that come of sharing together in community tasks and in collaborative action when need arises. (DAA , 34-37)
What are physical characteristics of hospitable neighbourhoods? The houses often have front porches where people can sit out and exchange a wave or greeting with their neighbours—rather than the protruding garages of suburbia that may give the much vaunted privacy developers advertise but isolate people from those who live next door. They have sidewalks, bike paths and good public transit so that people can move about in ways that allow meeting and mingling, rather than having to travel in the isolation of automobiles. They have prospering commercial areas with wide sidewalks to allow for people to stop and visit, and flowers, benches, sculptures and other efforts at beautification. They have nearby schools, parks, libraries, and community centres. And they are not cut off from adjoining neighbourhoods but generally have shorter blocks and loose boundaries that overlap.
An important function of healthy neighbourhoods is that they provide a context for the kind of “continual informal, democratic explorations” by ordinary people dealing with the many elements that make up a functioning society. (S of S, p. xii). “A society must be self-aware,” Jacobs warned. “Any society that jettisons the values that have given it competence, adaptability, and identity becomes weak and hollow. A culture can avoid that only by tenaciously retaining the values responsible for the culture’s nature and success.” (DAA, 176).
* The other pillars, all of which Jacobs identified as at risk, are 2) higher education, 3) the effective practice of science and science-based technology, 4) taxes and governmental powers that respond to needs and possibilities, and 5) self-policing of the professions by their professional organizations. (DAA)


Jane Jacobs, “Downtown is for People” in The Exploding Metropolis, ed. William H. Whyte, University of California Press, 1993. (First published in 1957.)
---------, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Random House, 1993. (First published in1961.)
---------, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, Random House, 1992.
----------, Dark Age Ahead, Random House, 2004.
Brendan Gleeson, “Justice and the Disabling City: The Social Oppression of Disability,” in Jane Jacobs and Ruth Fincher, eds., Cities of Difference, Guilford Press, 1998, 89-119.


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