Washington Square Park, which Jane Jacobs helped save from destruction by a highway project.

Washington Square Park, which Jane Jacobs helped save from destruction by a highway project.

Today we kickoff Jane Jacobs week here at Strong Towns. We're going to be discussing the important legacy of this brilliant woman and, in the process, try to unpack some of her powerful insights for you, our audience. Please help us spotlight these important issues.

After graduate school, I remember being befuddled by the way I heard my fellow planners talk about Jane Jacobs. They would refer to her when advocating for mixed use development, higher density places and walkable neighborhoods. This is what Jane Jacobs said we should do. Sometimes -- all too often -- these would be ridiculous top/down plans that, while they met some of these superficial metrics, weren't going to make anyone's life any better.

What is going on? Did these people read the same Jane Jacobs that I read?

That isn't to say Jane Jacobs is against mixed use neighborhoods, density and walkable neighborhoods -- she's clearly not -- but that's not at all what I took away from her writing. I read her as an intellectual radical, someone akin to Charles Darwin or even a Leonardo da Vinci, a person who was far more worried about the thought process used to approach complex problems than any specific outcome. I found in her writing a true scientific mind, always observing, testing and learning from the world around her. The slogans subsequently adopted by the planning profession on mixed use, density and walkability are mere byproducts of this radical core, an oversimplification, if you will.

Far too often, when an urban planner hears Jacobs' beautifully describe the sidewalk ballet, they find the operative word to be "sidewalk" when, in fact, it is the evocation of a ballet that should be our inspiration. Jane Jacobs repeatedly challenges us to embrace the complex -- the ballet -- and not just that which is simple and easy to code. 

Here's the full quote, in all its beauty, from Death and Life of Great American Cities. Note the reference to a "complex order".

Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.
Nobody but charlatans can be prophets.
— Jane Jacobs

How do you code for a pattern that never repeats itself from place to place? How do you write a detailed plan for an art form? When your tools are limited to codes and plans, it is very tempting to find things to code and plan for, a reality that has always made the planning profession's embrace of Jane Jacobs a little odd. One of my favorite Jane Jacobs lines came when she was talking about attempts to predict the future -- a key component of modern planning -- and said, "Nobody but charlatans can be prophets and everybody can be as aware as possible of what is actually happening." 

And, to me, that is the key to understanding Jane Jacobs. Everybody can be as aware as possible. How? By observing, by asking questions and then by observing some more. Only a charlatan pretends to have more wisdom about what should be done in a place than the people who actually live there. Only a charlatan gains their so-called wisdom from theories.

So this week we're going to celebrate the great insights and contributions that Jane Jacobs made to urban planning and the future of cities. We'll do some of the stuff that others are doing -- highlighting great neighborhoods, walkable places and dense neighborhoods -- but we're also going to respect this great woman by going beyond the easy and exposing the rigorous thought process that is her greatest contribution. As she says in this video

I'm not ideological. I think ideologies are blinders. Always have been. The kind of mind I have is basically a scientific one. I respect observation and experiment and what happens and not abstractions or theories about what ought to be or what ought to happen. I like to know how things really work.

So do I, and that's why I've found great comfort in the writings of Jane Jacobs.

All photos from Wikipedia.


We know that Jane Jacobs has had a powerful impact on many of you, and we want to hear your perspective. We invite you to participate in an ongoing discussion about Jane Jacobs' thinking and her legacy, on our Slack discussion forum.

Visit this page to sign up for Slack and to learn more about this platform. Once you've logged in, please join the #JaneJacobs channel and participate. Friday at 12:30pm CT, Chuck Marohn will lead a live chat about the legacy of Jane Jacobs, but we encourage you to start talking now!

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