Ottawa's Festival of Ideas Since 1997

“She’s still with us.” — On the Life and Legacy of Jane Jacobs

Nearly a quarter-century since the 1961 publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Jane Jacobs, an adoptive Torontonian, remains relevant as ever. This is particularly the case as urbanization has continued apace the world over. At a packed room on a dreary Saturday afternoon, the Writers Fest hosted Robert Kanigel and Nathan Storring in conversation with CBC Ottawa’s Joanne Chianello. Kanigel’s latest is a fresh biography of Jane entitled Eyes on the Street, and Storring is the c0-editor of a new volume of unpublished shorter works of Jane, Vital Little Plans. Much like her nineteenth century namesake, Jacobs is readily recognizable by her given name. 

Kanigel, who has published a well-regarded biography of the prodigious Indian mathematician Ramanujan, recounted reading a review of his latest book where the verdict was that a reader could learn more about Jane from reading Death and Life. He added with sincerity that he takes “no umbrage” at this judgment. His hope is that others will be spurred to turn to Jane’s primary works, as she still possesses a voice that is striking for its fearless clarity, and a prose that is “a pleasure to read.” While much of Jane’s ideas have the currency of fashion today, Kanigel stressed how novel they seemed in an era where the automobile was king (we haven’t moved the needle much farther, still). It was Jane’s dichotomy of ‘foot people’ and ‘car people’ that helped her analyze the ills of city planning bereft of boots on the ground.

Storring took the podium and spoke about the life of Jane following 1961, and shed a lot of light on her personal challenges as she often felt activism took her away from writing. I especially found convincing, Storring’s detailed deficiencies of “big plans.” When it comes to urban landscapes, they are inherently wrong-headed. It also has the double fault of being denuded of grace, glazing the eyes with its “visual boredom.” Jane, rightly we can argue, made the case of little plans over big ones; subsidiarity over centralization. We get parts of this in Soviet era architecture—during a recent visit to Poland, I found the baroque beauty of Kraków far more alluring than the remnants of the forgettable Communist years.

Chianello deftly handled the conversation with both Kanigel and Storring, who having just met before their festival slot had started, had natural chemistry in talking about their favourite subject. It was encouraging to hear of the struggles of the bullish young Jane in school (she turned out quite alright!) Jane was no accident (nor a slouch). She learnt her craft in the world of niche journalism. One of her previous roles saw her act as propogandist for the American government. She wrote about various features of American life. It was interesting to hear of her having written a piece on slums—an act of self-critical truth-telling that would have been verboten in U.S.S.R., and itself demonstrating liberties that only existed outside totalitarianism. It was clear from the conversation that Jane saw a hidden order of things and was able to meticulously record how things were.

I kept thinking of the fact that in an era where we are once again flirting with rising violent crime in a few of our continent’s metropolises (see: Chicago), Jacobs voice is needed. Despite being the bane of urban life since the industrial era, reaching an illustrative apogee perhaps in 1960s-80s New York, Jacobs’ vision and endurance proves that lawlessness need not be the salient feature of city life. She was able, to paraphrase Kanigel, to show that “city life can be a good life.” Different from a rustic or suburban setting, but endued with a vitality that is inimitable anyplace else. The final charm was the evident love that both men had for their protagonist, to the point of their wives’ accommodation of Jane, “the other woman.” Following the afternoon, it was easy to predict that Jane Jacobs will continue to be relevant to our concerns for a very long time yet.