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Vale Jane Jacobs
Russell Degnan

Every time you read something it changes your life a little. Jane Jacobs greatest work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities changed the way the public thinks about planning; unfortunately, I am not sure we can really say it changed the way all planners do. But it is still a seminal work, and the widespread mentioning of her passing on blogs I read is proof that, hopefully, her simple, but deep, message will someday percolate through.

I had the good fortune to read this work at a time when I was particularly receptive to it. It not only changed my life a little, it changed it a lot.

I bought Death and Life at the Technical Bookshop, formerly on Swanston Street, and began reading it on a United flight from Sydney to San Francisco. That was the start of a five month overseas trip, with time in the United States, United Kingdom, Belgium France, Italy and the Netherlands. I had chosen those countries because, even before reading Jane Jacob's books, I was interested in the economies of cities, and if you want to see where it all began, then northern Italy, the Low Countries and Champagne is the place you need to go. I had been interested in urban issues as well, which is why I'd bought the book. The confluence of three things -- interest, time to reflect, and travel -- was perfect.


I think all good books start with a rant. It shows the author cares, and that the topic is important. Most books don't sustain the passion, but Death and Life does. From beginning to end it gets at you, explaining why things are happening, why current thinking is hurting those things. And always, in a way that appeals to my liberal/libertarian sensibility and post-Artificial Intelligence cynicism of our ability to model dynamic systems, it focused on individual people first, not collections.

I didn't put down Death and Life and say: I want to be a planner. Nothing is ever so simple. But it put me on the path to planning, because it made me think about the very real problem of cities; an insoluble one perhaps, but endlessly interesting problem. After a few months of these problems, I was safely in the zone of a mid-20s crisis. The problems I was working on in IT had lost their lustre. By the time I returned home I was seriously contemplating a change of fields, and within 12 months I was back at university. Not all the result of one book, but it was certainly a catalyst for my change of state.


Ultimately though, Jane Jacobs' work wasn't really about cities. They were just one problem that she looked at, in some depth, but never as comprehensively as other people, some of whom concluded similar ideas. What she was about was a way of approaching problems generally, that emphasised that many things are self organised and unpredictable; and therefore, that we should be guiding, not leading, encouraging, not restrictive, and amenable to dynamic change.

Planning, for the most part, is none of those things; and rarely tries. Jane Jacobs' legacy is a slightly blurry, cynical, but optimistic, vision of what planning, and society in general, can be, and often is. She was probably wrong on a lot of the particulars, but that won't matter. Her work will outlive her long life by some margin. And for that, I and many others, am very glad.

Urban Design 30th April, 2006 03:51:22   [#] 

Comments

Commuter Transport factsheet
FWD message:

The Office of the Commissioner for Environmental Sustainability is pleased to announce the publication of the first Fact Sheet associated with the State of the Environment Report. The fact sheet can be found under Publications at the Commissoner's website; http://www.ces.vic.gov.au/.

The Commuter Transport Fact Sheet is the first in a series to be developed by the Commissioner's Office as part of the preparation of Victoria’s first comprehensive State of Environment Report. The State of Environment Report is a major undertaking aimed at improving our understanding of Victoria’s environment, to report on its health and as a tool to ensure its protection for present and future generations. The report is due for release in 2008.

The Fact Sheet explores some of the environmental issues associated with commuter transport, including mode viability, efficiency and greenhouse gas emmisions and pollution from transport, and the effects of motor vehicle congestion.
Geoff  2nd May, 2006 15:13:11  

Govt Spam?
What the Commuter Transport Fact Sheet has got to do with Jane Jacob's death is beyond me.
Aaron  13th May, 2006 17:37:36  


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