Picture from What We See blog showing a participant in "Jane's Walk," where Toronto students donned Jacobs-styled spectacles and were asked guiding questions to engage their senses about their neighborhood

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

We cannot always see for ourselves how the world is changing.

Jane Jacobs, the most important urban theorist this country has known, published her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961 to challenge the restrictions, the assumptions — the prejudices, really — that had for decades determined who would live where, and why. If the city would shape how the country changed, Jacobs argued, then we had the obligation to shape our cities better.

“To [her],” Robert Sirman writes, “design was political.” Sirman, a Toronto-based arts advocate, is one of 35 writers whose work is collected in What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (New Village Press, 2010, edited by Stephen A. Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth).

Standing on Jacobs’s shoulders, as it were, the selections here range from arguments like Sirman’s to quieter reminiscences about the woman’s influence, meditations on urban spaces to nuts-and-bolts discussions of environmental initiatives, portraits of cities to stories about revitalized neighborhoods. There is even an imagined conversation between political figure and community advocate Daniel Kemmis and Jacobs herself, as the two “stroll” through Missoula, Montana.

In one of the collection’s most memorable pieces, Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor at Berkeley, writes about “cluster housing,” a trend in which homes are built around a shared green space where children (and parents, too) can play in nature, safe from traffic and yet still within earshot of a mother’s dinner shout.

In another Janine Benyus tells a story about her work in biomimicry, the study of nature’s designs to deal sustainably and smartly with our engineering problems. She writes:

In sun-scorched places, architects are mimicking the pleats of a self-shading cactus to reduce a building’s cooling needs. … Windows can be covered with an antireflective coating that drinks in light, a secret borrowed from the eyes of night-flying moths. Rather than painting a surface, designers are creating transparent thin films that will refract light the way a butterfly’s wing does … . (201) (You can watch her Ted Talk here.)

Fascinating though these projects are, What We See cannot be breezed through. At times, the collection is weighed down with policy. Some readers might find the prose too dependent on jargon. And most of the essays assume the reader’s familiarity with Jacobs’s books and biography. Still, if What We See requires, at times, a professional’s duty-bound doggedness, it rewards the general reader’s generosity. The best selections inspire a kind of covetousness, as they present projects or politics you might want for your own city, for your own family to use and enjoy.

As Jacobs recognized, since cities are never finished, it is never too late to remember our ideals and revise our plans. We all are accountable, and we all count. Sirman, in “Built Form and the Metaphor of Storytelling,” reiterates this lesson. “[If] a city’s built form impacts all who pass through it, then all who pass through have a vested interest in the decisions that underlie how the city is built,” he writes. “The end users of a new building or road or subdivision are not simply the landlords or primary occupants, but virtually anyone who comes in contact with the space” (161).

We might be, as in 1961, at the beginning of another upheaval in 2010. The oil pouring into the Gulf Coast might staunch one kind of dependence. Our world might be changing. Meanwhile, the ideals and plans featured in What We See — sustainable building initiatives, bicycle greenway networks, neighborhood revitalizations, recycling programs, residential planning that considers the needs of the family — are all gaining momentum in the collective imagination, and all are plans to make our cities better. To change them, as Jacobs urged almost 50 years ago, we must learn to see them again.

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, ed. Stephen A. Goldsmith,
Lynne Elizabeth. New Village Press, 2010.
$26.95, hardcover

An interactive website and blog called What We See: A Civic Engagement Project expands on the themes and questions of the book.

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