Jane Jacobs meets City Choreographer

So Jane Jacobs and a choreographer walk into a bar…no really…what if I had the chance to have a drink with the legendary Jane Jacobs. You know, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The BIBLE of urban planning. What all urban design relates to (or critiques) still over 40+ years later.

What if we got to talk. I think we would have  a lot to say to each other. I think we would want each other’s jobs. I think  we would have a lot of fun. Reading Jacobs from my lens as choreographer, here are some of my take-aways…

  1. We both like to walk. We like to see what we can see. We understand the world by being in it. She says in her article (which launched her famous book)  Downtown is for People (1958)—“You’ve got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions on which the projects depend are visibly wrong.”
  2. We are are inspired by the inherent systems at play. And we get mad when people overlook these and try to force their own view…“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” (p. 15)   LOVE HER!
  3. We both are annoyed with our fields. I mean I love dancers and my fellow choreographers. But catch me on a bad night and I could go on and on.
  4. Jane says, “The theorists of conventional modern city planning have consistently mistaken cities as problems of simplicity and of disorganized complexity, and have tried to analyze and treat them thus.” (p. 434)

other highlights from The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

“Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contains seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.” (p. 448)

“In short, will the city be any fun? The citizen can be the ultimate expert on this; what is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk. He should walk not only the streets of his own city, but those of every city he visits.”

“Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”

Jacobs recommends (p. 440: The Death and Life…)

  1. To think about processes
  2. To work inductively, reasoning from particulars to the general rather than the reverse;
  3. To seek for “unaverage” clues involving very small quantities, which reveal the way larger and more average quantities are operating

She asked that planners “respect- in the deepest sense- strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order”

She introduced terms “eyes on the street” and “social capital”, “mixed primary uses”

Ultimately, she was advocating for a place-based, community-centered approach to urban planning. Wish I could have sat down with her. So grateful I got to study her this year at Wesleyan.

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