Jane Jacobs: First, she saved Manhattan

The Winnipeg Free Press
Focus, Saturday, April 29, 2006, p. a17


For those who followed and admired her work, the death Tuesday of urban philosopher Jane Jacobs was moving and profound. Among the many achievements of her long life, it could be said she was, more than anyone else, single-handedly responsible for saving Manhattan from a destructive disaster far worse than Sept. 11, 2001. Were it not for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and her indefatigable activism, there would today be a freeway connecting the Holland Tunnel with the Manhattan Bridge, sacrificing the beloved neighbourhoods of SoHo, Chinatown, and Greenwich Village.

Soon after moving to Toronto in 1969, she saved that city from a similar fate, leading the protest against the planned Spadina Expressway that would have razed that city’s Chinatown.

The Death And Life of Great American Cities was a moving work whose effects can be seen throughout North America in efforts to rebuild inner cities damaged by modernism. Her identification of four key generators of city diversity — mixed residential and commercial uses, short blocks, aged buildings, density — have helped planners crack the code that defines what makes some neighbourhoods safe and successful and others dull and dangerous.

Her work profoundly influenced the direction of my own life, leading me to pinpoint Commercial Drive in Vancouver as an ideal place to live, and live there I did for six years. It was during a visit home to Winnipeg in June 2000 that I saw my hometown’s urban problems. I was moved to write my first-ever piece for the Free Press opinion page, “Replace modernism with mixed use.”

There’s little evidence that Jacobs’ ideas have had an impact in Winnipeg. There’s some mixed-use proposals for St. Boniface’s Provencher Boulevard and downtown’s Waterfront Drive, but Jacobs, who never wrote about Winnipeg, probably would have best liked Main Street in the pre-modernist era, when the streetcars kept the streets teeming and certain single blocks of storefront businesses offered a diversity of services — cafs, grocers, boutiques, hardware stores, barbers, tailors, etc. — far greater than today’s automobile-centric shopping malls.

“The activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people,” wrote Jacobs in The Death and Life of Great American Cities. “[T]hat the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. People’s love of watching activity and other people is constantly evident in cities everywhere.”

Besides her famous rows with Robert Moses, New York’s expressway-mad master builder, Jacobs aimed her most ruthless criticism at the ideas of Ebenezer Howard — the late 19th century utopian planner who envisioned a low-density, town-country hybrid “Garden City” separating residences, industry, and agriculture — and Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose “Radiant City” schemes of Internationalist-style towers-in-the-park living became the archetype for public housing projects throughout the U.S. and especially in East Germany and the Soviet Union.

Jacobs stayed at work well into her 80s; her last book, Dark Age Ahead (Random House, 2004) lamented the breakdown of communities and families (“families rigged to fail”), society’s emphasis on credentials rather than education, and the mass amnesia associated with dark ages, where even the memory of what was lost is lost. “When Portland, Oregon, bought some [streetcars] recently, it had to order them from the Czech Republic,” she writes, “because the U.S. streetcar manufacturing industry, once the largest and most technologically advanced in the world, no longer exists.” Indeed, an often-mentioned theme in Dark Age Ahead is the General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, in which streetcar systems were torn up in 146 jurisdictions throughout North America. Many young people living in those places today might not be aware that streetcars once served their streets; even if they are aware, they might not know how extensive were those systems. (How many Winnipeggers today know our city streets once enjoyed over 200 kilometres of streetcar lines?)

At the time of her death, Jacobs was at work on two manuscripts, but they are sure to find their way to print. Her body may have passed, but her ideas have more life than ever.

Category: Editorial and Opinions
Uniform subject(s): Real estate industry; Architecture and urban planning

Why our young abandon Winnipeg

Retaining urban singles key to raising population

Saturday, April 1, 2006

Dallas Hansen

Why are “a disproportionate number of young, skilled workers” quitting Manitoba for greener pastures in BC and Alberta? Neither the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce or the University of Manitoba economics department has any clue, but both are calling for “an in-depth provincial study….”

No need to waste another several years scratching your heads, fellows–I’ve already studied this more deeply than any think-tank every could. As a whole, young, single, educated men and women are leaving Winnipeg because–compared to Vancouver, Toronto, or, sadly, even Calgary–Winnipeg is thought to be, to put it diplomatically, bumpkinly. Provincial.

How Cowtown, once best known for its rodeo festival, ever did eclipse our superior reputation for sophistication might be profitably examined, but it’s not just about jobs and oil. According to Statscan, Manitoba’s unemployment rate for February, 2006 is 4.4 per cent, second lowest in the country, and a half-percentage point below British Columbia’s. Alberta, at 3.1 per cent, might be able to guarantee you a job, but then why do so many young Winnipeggers opt for Vancouver?

As a former Vancouverite who would never consider moving to Calgary, I’ll tell you why. It isn’t the climate–three weeks at a time without a ray of sunlight is worse than three weeks of minus thirty. It’s that Vancouver appeals to young, single, educated adults through its quality urban neighbourhoods. Whether you live in Kitsilano or English Bay, Yaletown or Commercial Drive, you have a giant selection of little grocery stores, cafés, neighbourhood pubs and sundry shops within easy walking–providing plenty of community-building, face-to-face meetings with your young, single, educated peers. Under such conditions a car seems superfluous; without one, the increased cost of living is no longer. Add a potential for better earnings and you’re financially better off.

Some, such as U of M economist John McCallum, have suggested Manitoba has a marketing problem. But no amount of slick advertising can rouse demand for what is essentially an unpalatable product–at least compared to what our competitors can offer. Then what’s our problem? Winter? Edmonton’s is no better. Lack of jobs? Winnipeg’s got plenty, even for artists, writers, actors, etc. In my case, I found opportunity through a publishing institution old as the city itself–the Free Press.

Cities, at minimum, are a collection of buildings and people. A block of densely packed, upright historic frame houses is worth much, much more–both monetarily and in use-value–when it is proximal to a lively, storefront-lined pedestrian shopping street. While today the closest thing Winnipeg has to such a thing might be Corydon Avenue (though it is also dotted with set-back strip malls, a gas station, an auto body shop, a giant phone utility building, etc.) during Winnipeg’s growth days many of our streets–Main, Portage, Selkirk, James, Euclid, Notre Dame–were built up in blocks of solid storefront with apartments on the upper floors. This mixed-use model has proved essential to creating zones of urbanity, the sort of attractive public spaces where the young, single, and educated want to be.

Even if oil prices crash tomorrow, out-migration will continue to haunt Manitoba’s economy until we admit to Winnipeg’s modernist mistakes and begin an aggressive reconstruction program. By all and any means, we must reëstablish storefront continuity along our main city streets, building several storeys of apartment dwellings above; de-regulate on-street parking, moving cars off commercial lands that ought to be built upon; and, most importantly–thought this is a point typically lost upon Chamber-of-Commerce types–we must build a grade-separated, rail based rapid transit system that will every day bring downtown tens of thousands of people, but not their cars, while returning the lifestyle advantage back toward the convenient centre and away from the sterile suburbs.

Speaking of suburbia, that’s one environment from which the young, single, and educated creative classes are almost invariably repelled. Given the dullness of such subdivisions as Linden Woods and Island Lakes, disconnected as they are from the wholesome spontaneity of city life, it’s no wonder that so many middle-class, suburban youth have turned to stimulant drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstasy) to feel stimulated.

Calgary is an ugly mess of urban sprawl, tacky houses, and ugly modernist buildings. But planners there know this, which is why they’re pushing to build inner-city density while adding to their successful light-rail transit system. They’re proud of having an inner-city population of 117,000, and their civic government is chasing enough infill development to add another 34,000 by 2024. Meanwhile, Winnipeg’s inner city population, from 1986 to 2007, fell by 13,000, but remains still (somewhat) ahead of Calgary’s.

Compared to Calgary, Winnipeg would have a much easier time feeling like a metropolis. We need only try.