Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Week Four - Jude

The Death And Life Of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961)
Recommended by John Houghton

So: picking a 585-page book was probably not my best idea this week. Work has been insane, my evenings have been full,  and this book has demanded a lot of attention. Hence this entry being a day late. And this book – ulp – still not being *quite* finished. But next week, I've got a lovely short piece of fiction, so I'll be fine (breathe, BREATHE). And I'll update this entry with some final thoughts as soon as I'm done.

But bloody Nora, what a book this has been so far. Jane Jacobs, my God. A proper force of nature.

In the middle of the 20th century, this one-woman whirlwind stormed into debates about American city planning, talked absolute sense about mistakes being made, and made a lot of men (it was usually men) pretty mad. She stopped an expressway destroying Greenwich Village, and did something similar in Toronto when she moved there in the '70s. The suits in power called her "a crazy dame", questioning her lack of formal training and university education (they conveniently ignored her 25 years as a journalist). All because she said that planners should look at a city itself, before imposing ideas onto it. All because she studied the matter at hand, and put people at the heart of her politics.

This video gives a nice, short introduction to her work:

This book was recommended to me by my friend, John. John and I were at university together. Two regionally-accented squits from comprehensives, we spent some time buggering about with student politics. I ran away from it; John excelled at it. He's been working for the civil service and consultancies ever since, writing about housing, cities and regeneration, subjects I've always been interested in.

I love meeting up with John over a bottle of booze (OK, sometimes more than one), picking his brain about this stuff. I always learn something new (including a few swear words, usually). I thoroughly recommend his brilliant blog, Metropolitan Lines, especially his writing about the house he grew up in, which now lies derelict. It brings the problems of city planning, he says in one piece, "home...in a stingingly personal way".

I already knew about Jane Jacobs' book because I'd bought it for Him Indoors a few Christmasses ago (he works in a similar field to John – and don't worry, I got Dan a Chocolate Orange as well). I knew he'd enjoyed it, but I hadn't realised how brilliantly forthright Jacobs would be.

The Death and Life... begins: "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding", and continues in combative, no-nonsense language. "It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things do work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give," she adds later. Which could have been written yesterday. What a tragedy that is.

Throughout (OK, up to page 427), it's also hard to think of this book being 52 years old. Jacobs writes so plainly, so clearly and so persuasively...her observations have a freshness that feel brand new. "In this book we shall start ...adventuring into the real world, ourselves", she says. "The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behaviour of cities is...to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes or  events."

So Jacobs looks at how sidewalks work. How children play. She explores areas that are frightening to walk in at night. Housing projects that have failed. She considers why these things have happened, clearly but sharply. Some of her relevations are brilliantly simple: areas that feel safe are always looked over by people, be they different people, at different times of day. Neighbourhoods that have short streets with frequent corners are better for us, because endless roads without intersections don't encourage different uses, or different visitors. She makes a fascinating point about how men design cities in which they don't exist in public in the daytime – they are locked away, hidden, not part of the real world. This causes other problems, naturally. For people to be happy, they need other people.

She also junks the idea that areas of grass make housing projects better places to live – very often, these are places where there is no supervision, and where people feel lonely, she says. They only work alongside mixed-use buildings, and where variety reigns. Street life is enlivening and enriching too, she says, not a sign of social decay. The fact that cities are all about chaos and diversity is at the heart of her philosophy going back to the nature of human beings, again.

The book, I'll admit, is getting a bit repetitive four-fifths in. But still the ideas are coming: about the way city money is spent, how cars are prioritised over the people who drive them, ideas as relevant now as they were then. It's funny to think that this book was written before New York's Downtown really grew – ten years before the World Trade Center was even built. What's stranger is that it is seen as a hugely influential text by experts today, but in the real world, very little has changed.

Jane Jacobs died in 2006, at the age of 89. One day, we might see ourselves as we are, rather than as we ought to be.

(As a tribute to her, I'll finish with this great picture from 2009. Wigs and specs on. Jane LIVES.)