Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Musing: Jane Jacobs Urban Planner

Reading an email from MAS the Municipal Arts Society, I caught the name Jane Jacobs. I remembered that when I was at college, I was a big fan of Jacobs, an urban planner, and her ideas about what makes for a vibrant city. I remembered that she lived in "The Village," Greenwich Village, and took many of her ideas, later described so magnificently in her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," from the streets around her home. I liked that she was concerned with the safety of streets; she felt that streets with people on them at all hours made for safe streets.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the New York Times about Jacobs: Jane Jacobs was celebrated as the author of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," arguably the most influential book on city planning ever written. And, in her estimation, her block in the West Village contained all the necessary virtues. It was short (encouraging foot traffic) and crowded (spurring a busy street life) and made up of three- and-four-story buildings of varying ages and conditions, with apartments above and shops on the ground floor: a grocer, a barber, a hardware store. In one of the best-known passages of "Death and Life," Ms. Jacobs writes of the intricate and vibrant daily rituals of the block, what she called a "sidewalk ballet." "I make my own first entrance into it a little after 8 when I put out the garbage can," she wrote. Soon after, "well-dressed and even elegant men and women with briefcases emerge from doorways and side streets," and "simultaneously, numbers of women in housedresses have emerged and as they crisscross with one another they pause for quick conversations that sound with either laughter or joint indignation, never, it seems, anything in between." The block was peopled by longshoremen and children walking to Public School 41, by the delicatessen owner, Joe Cornacchia, and Mr. Lofaro, "the short, thick-bodied, white-aproned fruit man who stands outside his doorway a little up the street, his arms folded, his feet planted, looking solid as earth itself. "In Jacobs's view, it was a mixture of these functions, as citizens crossed paths and exchanged goods and news, that gave a neighborhood vitality. She even contended that theaters and music spaces should be integrated into the neighborhoods of the populations they served. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was not just a polemical attack, however; Jacobs also outlined what she saw as positive features of urban neighborhoods. They were fourfold. First, what would later be called mixed use was beneficial, with residential, retail, civic, and industrial buildings jumbled together and growing organically. Second, city blocks should be compact. Third, buildings should be diverse in age, condition, and size; Jacobs's ideas dovetailed effectively with the growing movement in favor of historic preservation. Finally, population should be dense. For Jacobs, the ideal neighborhood was often represented by her home of Greenwich Village, where she interacted with a wide range of individuals. Here is a link to the article on Jane Jacobs.

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