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Walking with Jane Jacobs

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The world is urbanizing at a rapid pace. According to statistics cited in the film Citizen Jane, a documentary on the career and philosophy of civic activist and writer Jane Jacobs, the equivalent of the population of Los Angeles moves to a city every two months. Urban living, which for so long had been the exception, is now becoming the norm all over the globe. Consequently, the decisions we make in city planning and design will have profound impacts on the quality of city life in the decades, perhaps centuries to come. However, this raises the question of who makes the decisions about life in the urban space, and who will benefit from those decisions. In Citizen Jane we witness the clash of two philosophies of urban design and their respective champions in the 20th century, and what those battles mean for the 21st.

Abbotsford held its first Jane’s Walk on Friday, May 3. The walk itself was fairly short and confined to the immediate environs of the Reach Gallery. Attendees were shown streetlight banners which were designed by seven local artists. However, the majority of the event was a showing of the film Citizen Jane, which chronicles the life and philosophy of civic activist Jane Jacobs, from whom Jane’s Walk derives both its name and its inspiration.

The story of Jane Jacobs begins (as so many of them do) in New York City. In the mid-20th century, New York was shaped in great part by Robert Moses. Moses was a city planner who was influenced (especially in the post-war period) by the ideas and aesthetics of Modernist architects such as Walter Gropius, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier, whose designs had a “tower in the garden” aesthetic, often composed of monumental megastructures of minimalist design surrounded by vast, open public spaces, and favoured minimalistic designs incorporating modern construction materials such as glass and concrete. Le Corbusier conceived of the home as “a machine for living.” Moses adopted this idea on a citywide scale, designing buildings and infrastructure with the same grandiose yet Spartan designs, which were meant to maximize efficiency of movement. From its starting point in the New York of Robert Moses, these centralized, efficiency-maximizing planning schemes spread across the continent.

The Modernists were well-intentioned for the most part. They saw the old cities as decaying hives of disease, crime, and traffic congestion. Moses and his ilk sought to bring mobility and fresh air to these places, and made efforts to relocate slum populations (most of which were communities of colour) in state-funded housing projects. Yet paradoxically, the projects became more crime-ridden, depressing, and isolating than the so-called slums they replaced. The projects fell into disrepair, and were eventually demolished, having failed at their goal. City-spanning freeways meant to connect neighbourhoods instead divided them with walls of concrete and fast-moving traffic. The utopian top-down vision of the modernists, now being realized, was hurting the fabric of urban life instead of helping it.

Jane Jacobs, on the other hand, saw things differently. She was a journalist who lived in New York, and had a keen eye for the city. Where contemporary city planners saw blight, squalor, and chaos, Jacobs saw opportunity, creativity, and resourcefulness. To her, the city was a type of ecosystem that, while it may look chaotic on the surface, concealed a self-reinforcing equilibrium. For instance, a street crowded with pedestrians and faced by shops offered safety through numbers and eyes on the street. To Jacobs, a city was more than a collection of buildings and roads, but a community that drew its strength from diversity and a shared sense of place. When a community is damaged or destroyed by isolation or forced relocation, it is very difficult to replace it, just as it is very difficult to regrow a forest once it has been clear-cut.

Jacobs’ career as an activist started when she mobilized the community of Manhattan to block Robert Moses’ planned freeway through Washington Square Park, which would have made the park unsafe and compromised a focal point for community life. She emerged victorious and won again against a proposed highway that would have cut across lower Manhattan and prevented her home neighbourhood of Greenwich Village from being designated as a “slum” area open to redevelopment, both projects also orchestrated by Moses. In doing so, she not only stood up for her values and saved historic communities, but also showed that the people could fight against harmful developments and win. Jane Jacobs wrote a number of books on community and urban design, the best known of which is The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). Jacobs later moved to Toronto, where she spent the rest of her life. Soon after arriving, Jacobs mobilized to block the planned Spadina Expressway, again emerging victorious.

It was in Toronto that the Jane’s Walk movement was founded in 2006 by her friends and colleagues to spread her vision of vibrant, resilient, and livable urban communities. They have since expanded to cities across the world in 37 countries on six continents, according to their official website, which includes Abbotsford and multiple municipalities in the Metro Vancouver area. Each walk is a walking tour that showcases a particular part of the city or aspect of the community, and seeks to educate residents and visitors about their community. To learn more about Jane’s Walk, and local walks you can participate in, you can visit their website at janeswalk.org.

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