News & Features » News and Features

From the Archive: Prescient Urbanist Jane Jacobs Discusses Richmond's New Century


1 comment

May 4, 2016 marks the 100th birthday of the late Jane Jacobs (1916-2006). Her 1961 landmark book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," reversed two decades of thought in how to develop American cities.

Decrying urban renewal projects that swept aging cityscapes clean, Jacobs wrote that downtowns had become sacrificial victims for planners. She called for common sense, humanistic approaches to city planning and preservation, and mixed uses of both neighborhoods and buildings to allow market forces to evolve. Citizens, not necessarily planners, should be listened to.

The book created an about-face for midcentury city planning in much the same way Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" sparked heightened environmental awareness.

Jacobs followed with other books: "The Economy of Cities," "Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life" and "The Nature of Economies." The Toronto resident, writer and economic thinker visited family in Richmond in 2000 and was interviewed by senior contributing editor and architecture critic Edwin Slipek.

Style: How did you become interested in how cities function?

Jacobs: It started in the fourth grade. We had a school library that operated in Scranton [Pa.] on Fridays. You could take as many as three books, and these were supposed to get you through the week. If books were late, it was a penny fine for each one.

On this particular Friday, Elizabeth Aires, I remember her name, was told by the librarian, "You can't get another book until you pay your fine."

"I'll bring it when the bird's-eye blows," Elizabeth said.

"All right, Elizabeth," the librarian replied.

When I got home, I repeated this story and asked my mother what was meant by "the bird's-eye." "The bird's-eye" was the coal mine. In the mornings, at 6 o'clock, if there was work for the miners, a whistle would blow. The teacher had accepted Elizabeth's statement with dignity, and it certainly opened up many things to me. I wasn't such a dolt that I didn't understand that everybody had a way of making their living, but I started asking my father, who was a physician, "How did this person or that person each earn his money?"

The whole city seemed so much more interesting to me. It became a web. I began to understand all kinds of details.

How do you view urban sprawl, the development of edge cities and how these things affect traditional aspects of pedestrian, or walking, cities?

Jacobs: So-called edge cities are additions to a city, the metropolitan areas are still growing. There is something about a city that is not a dispersing thing regardless of the means of transportation. [Edge cities and sprawl] are not disintegrating forces.

It is the rural places that are losing ground. We haven't had [strictly] pedestrian cities for a hundred years. There were carts and horses; the automobile is only the latest [mode of travel].

In Toronto, I now see a lot of people on inline skates. They go faster than automobiles. People are ingenious. They get bored. We have a low threshold for boredom. We won't go back.

What are your impressions of the [2000] U.S. presidential race? [George W. Bush vs. Al Gore}

Jacobs: While I'm not a prophet, whatever changes will occur will come from unofficial sources. This is typical of leadership in great movements. Leaders fall behind and have to be shown.

Toronto was taking up the streetcar tracks in the 1960s, and this young engineer, all by himself, had information on how the streetcars could be saved. His plan was derided but he kept at it. It was a wake-up call. Finally, he prevailed. He had self-confidence. We wouldn't have had any transit system in Toronto [without his efforts].

It wasn't someone in a position of leadership who took the leadership.

What are your impressions of Richmond on this visit?

Jacobs: It was the first time I had really gotten out and seen the city in maybe 20 years. I had a great time. It's not a typical city — it's certainly different and more hopeful than Utica, Buffalo and Ithaca.

For one thing, and this is very unglamorous, I was impressed with how clean Richmond is, it's really clean. Toronto prides itself on cleanliness, but we look unkempt and dirty compared to Richmond.

And the typical American city is gone entirely to the automobile — it's very obvious that parking lots are everywhere, but Richmond has not gone in that direction. Richmond has well-kept, obviously cherished green spaces. Richmond looks like it values its landscape much more than other places. You see it in the public spaces and public parks, and also in private yards. Your trees are marvelous.

Another thing that struck me since I was here 20 years ago is how improved Richmond is. The last time I looked there were so many unpainted and dilapidated houses. You get a real lift when a place is improving instead of going down. It's very much a living city. I find so much to admire.

You have lived in Canada since the 1960s. What are your current observations of America from that vantage point?

Jacobs: Americans don't think anyplace else is quite real. Here's an exaggeration of it: During the Vietnam War, our forces would ask "When were we going to get back to the world?"

Other places are just as real, but it's universally recognized in other countries that Americans feel this way. I'm not criticizing, I just think it's curious.

There are nuances of difference between the United States and Canada. A big difference is that Canada was a colony for so long. You can't be a colony without getting your self-confidence beaten down.

Americans have so much self-confidence. I like it that Americans have self-confidence. It has a lot to do with prosperity. The spectacularly good things I saw in Richmond have a lot to do with prosperity. I was impressed with what good use this prosperity has been put to. But I wasn't impressed with Richmond's lack of [regional] public transit. I don't admire that. That's the biggest vacancy and omission. S


Showing 1-1 of 1


Add a comment