At the risk of drastically flattering myself, here are a few things I have in common with one of my greatest personal heroes, Jane Jacobs:
- She was 5’9” tall, and so am I.
- We both love riding bicycles—something that’s still a little atypical for women in America in 2017, and was considered outright eccentric in the 1950s and 60’s when Jane was zipping across the Brooklyn Bridge.
- Neither of us are urban planners or engineers or people who build cities in the professional sense of the verb. Like her, when I think of the nouns that most readily describe me, I think of words like “writer” and “citizen,” and maybe “activist” if I’ve made my way to a march or a planning commission meeting that week.
- Like her, I also happen to be deeply fascinated by the complex organisms we call a cities.
Unlike her, of course, I didn’t revolutionize the way we think about the places that we live. I’m not considered a foremother of modern urban studies and urban economics, nor if I were (ha!) could I ever have accomplished that feat without so much as a college degree, like she did.
But I do work for an organization that I think Jane would like a lot. And I like to think Strong Towns is continuing her legacy in a way few other organizations are.
Most people know Jane Jacobs as a behemoth in the urban design cannon, and if they’ve read anything of hers, it’s likely to be her magnum opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it, Jane cast a naturalist’s eye on the question of how life itself works in healthy (and unhealthy) built environments, as well as what conditions seem most conducive to allowing these spaces to thrive. Students of urban studies have learned her provocative, non-prescriptive approach to building the world—or somewhat more accurately, letting the world build itself—ever since.
But as amazing as it was, Jacobs herself didn’t consider Death and Life her greatest legacy.
You may not have read Jane’s 1964 White House address to Ladybird Johnson and the attendees of the 5th annual Woman Doers Luncheon, which appears in her collected short works, Vital Little Plans. But if you’ve been around Strong Towns for a while, I have a feeling it’ll sound pretty familiar:
Almost unnoticed and unremarked, a great unbalance has developed in cities between money for building things and money for running things…The consequences of such unbalance go far beyond dirt and disrepair. The certainty of not having enough money to run things automatically rules out wide ranges of potential recreation in cities and many forms of potential beauty… Already, it has become easier for cities to let things disintegrate awaiting big capital expenditure of some kind, and at that point, sweep away the good with the bad, the beautiful with the ugly, the productive with the unproductive. We see the paradox of cities actually impoverishing themselves by capital improvements.
That’s a pretty prescient summing up of the Growth Ponzi scheme, the Strong Towns view of the so-called infrastructure crisis, the importance of incremental development, and a few other pillars of Strong Towns thinking—only, of course, we didn’t write it.
Jane Jacobs is undoubtedly best known for the way she talks about city design, and design students around the world have learned the four pillars common to most functioning metropolises that she taught: multiple primary uses, short blocks, a mix of old and new buildings, and dense concentrations of people to make it all work. But what Jacobs recognized—and what Strong Towns recognizes uniquely well—is that without a good economic mechanism that supports good city planning, cities will still fail—and they’ll do so spectacularly, at real human cost.
A few weeks after I started working for Strong Towns, a member sent me a beautifully written message about a town that looked perfect, both on paper and on google street view. It had everything: narrow, slow roads and mom and pop retail at street level, street trees and a beautiful square, probably a pretty good tax value per acre rate and not a big box store in sight. It had been designed that way, to a finished state, and built all at once.
“And it’s dead on arrival,” the member wrote me.
What Jacobs preached—and what I think no organization understands better than Strong Towns—is that the secret ingredient to city life is life. More to the point, she knew that it was essential to “plan” our cities in such a way that you let them live and grow organically, answering the constant buzz of feedback from the people who live there, extending by inches rather than by skyscraper miles.
As my boss and our president, Chuck, said once, the key word in Jacobs’ famous metaphor of the “sidewalk ballet” concept isn’t "sidewalk." It’s "ballet." A successful city is a dance that we need to set the stage for, but the set pieces aren’t what we watch breathlessly from our seats.
Of course, what this means for our cities might, indeed, be more and better sidewalks; when we choose a bottom-up approach where many citizens and all their human-scale needs are central to the way we build our world, sidewalks do tend to crop up a lot (along with bike lanes, and quality transit, and lots of things that save our cities money and make us safer, too.)
But I don’t believe Jacobs would sign on for a vision of the world that prescribed a certain sidewalk width for every city in America, or a golden density ratio, or even a given block length. She was interested in something more amazing: the wild and beautiful ways that places breathe and shift and wither, and how we can create the natural conditions where they can thrive—then let them thrive.
It’s a slippery thing to do. It’s not any easier to treat a city like this than it is to be a park ranger in the Amazon rainforest. But it’s something I believe that Strong Towns succeeds uniquely in accomplishing, both in the mission and approach for which we advocate, as well as in how we choose to operate as an organization.
It’s not easy for me to explain to my friends in my hometown of St. Louis that I work for a nonprofit that deals with how cities are built that isn’t about my city, exactly, and that actually doesn’t have a physical office in any city at all. It’s hard to justify, to some people, why we believe that media is the best mechanism for creating lasting and meaningful change in how we build our world. Why wouldn’t we apply for every grant on the books, set up an office in every town in America, roll up our sleeves and rebuild the towns ourselves? Wouldn’t it make more sense if we were a planning firm, or a consultancy, or a community development corporation or...anything else at all?
But the people that ask me this don’t see what Strong Towns members do. They don’t see the magic that happens when real people who live in real towns decide that they care, and they want to help their city chart a better path.
They don’t realize how much of my job is about helping strong citizens rally around a common, difficult idea, about helping them connect and form relationships to help solve those impossible problems. They don't see what's special about those relationships: that they are more durable and generative than any expert task force I’ve run across.
And they certainly don’t hear the astounding solutions that these citizens come up that are unique to their places, how those solutions are creative and sensitive in a way that something built rote off a blueprint simply can’t be, how what they end up with is more alive and dynamic than anything a top-down, prescriptive organization could ever dream of coming up with.
You can read some of the success stories to see it for yourself. But I can tell you what they all have in common: none of them would happen if we did things another way.
If you've read the work of Jane Jacobs and felt inspired but unsure about what to do next, we have the answer.
You join a community of people who are grappling actively and intensely with the question of how to make their place better every day. You embrace the fact that a city is made not in fell swoops, but by millions upon millions of small decisions made by neighbors, none of them alone. You show up, and you roll up your sleeves, and you get down to the messy and thrilling work of observing, understanding, and then re-making the world.
In short, you join Strong towns.
(Top photo by Phil Stanziola)