Wednesday, April 26, 2006

R. I. P. Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

From Jane Jacobs's The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught everywhere from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hairsplitting quibbles about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding.

Right after I moved to Uptown, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It would be hard to overstate how brilliant it seemed. I was quickly growing to love the messy, unplanned, lively character of the neighborhood, and Jane Jacobs explained, clearly and convincingly, why it worked. From the organic, contingent development of successful city neighborhoods, she drew conclusions that, while flying in the face of development and planning principles of the time, seemed, when I read them thirty-seven years later, irrefutable. They described perfectly what I loved about Uptown.

Now, Jacobs's arguments for the value of multi-use, diverse, compact neighborhoods are nearly commonplaces. She didn't quite win the battle; the arguments over development, density, sprawl, and zoning continue. But she did fundamentally change the terms of the debate for the better. There aren't many people in any field who can say that.

Last night, before I knew Jacobs had died, Stacey and I saw a documentary at the Chicago Architectural Foundation about Alexander Caldwell, designer of some of Chicago's finest parks (including Promontory Point, the lily pond north of the Lincoln Park Zoo, and the entire lakefront between Foster and Montrose, where we spend countless summer hours).

In the cafe next door, an old man was reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities. When I'm his age, I'll probably still be able to find someone at the cafe next door to the Chicago Architecture Foundation reading Jane Jacobs, and learning from her. Books full of ideas are great, great things.

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