Walking to demonstrate the ideas of Jane Jacobs

by carl on July 18, 2011

I’m writing these words in Toronto on the corner of Brunswick and Bloor from the patio of Future Café, for more than 25 years a favourite haunt of students and impoverished artists.

This area has been filled with bookstores, ethnic restaurants and cafés since the 1960s. A busker with a violin is playing Celtic music on the other corner. Alas, the neighbourhood, known as the Annex, has now lost all but one of its wonderful Hungarian restaurants – the sons and daughters of the owners simply wanted out of the restaurant business.

This area was home to the renowned urban thinker Jane Jacobs from 1968 until her death in 2006. In the late 60s, you could put the words “Jane Jacobs – April 24 – Convocation Hall” on a poster, put it up in downtown Toronto and within a few days, you would sell all 1,731 seats.

As a writer, Jane Jacobs succeeded in combining her analysis of what makes city neighbourhoods vital with prose that grabbed her readers. No community activist or city planner can afford to skip reading her most influential books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities and >Cities and the wealth of Nations.

I worked one afternoon with Jane when she and I were members of Karma Food Co-op in Toronto during the 70s. I mentioned I’d like to interview her and do an article about her work. She looked nervous, and to my regret today, I never did the interview.

Since then, I’ve thought about her often, but it wasn’t until this year, 2011, five years after her death, that I did something. Obviously the chance to interview Jane was long gone. But I had heard about the Janeswalks, held by volunteers in honour of Jane Jacobs, from Rosemary Tayler, who was working with my wife, Isabelle Yingling, to organize a new community garden at Bronson Avenue and Gladstone in Ottawa.

So I decided to show, in Jane Jacobs style, just how land use influenced my neighbourhood. Instead of writing about it, I spoke about it to those joining my Janeswalk, and CBC Radio interviewed me and my co-leader a few days before the walk, which we led on May 7, 2011.

Isabelle and I live a couple of blocks from Bronson Avenue, a street now sometimes called “The Bronson Expressway.” To show what else was happening on Bronson, I decided to hold a walk called “Hidden Bronson: Bicycles, Cafés and Violins.” It would be a bit of a struggle to do this on my own, so I asked an eager young writer, Caroline J. Brown, if she would co-lead the Janeswalk with me. She agreed and also signed up her boyfriend as photographer.

Caroline and I decided on the stops and split them up, with her speaking and one and me at the next. We also edited each other’s speeches. For our stops, she took Auntie Loo’s Treats (a vegan bakery) and Peter Dawson Violins. I took Recycles Bicycle Co-op and Caprese, a gluten-free restaurant.

We both decided that of all Jane Jacobs’s books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities was the one we wanted to use to illustrate the contradictions of Bronson Avenue.

We wanted to explore diversity, one of the values that Jane Jacobs argued should be a principle of city planning and neighbourhood development. Today diversity in urban neighbourhoods is at the core of the principles and plans of many cities around the world.

But how do you encourage diversity in cities?

Jacobs wrote, in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that there are four conditions necessary to generate “exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts:”

  1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
  2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
  4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

The blocks on either side of Bronson Avenue form parts of several neighbourhoods: the Glebe and Dow’s Lake from the Rideau Canal north to Highway 417, and Centretown, Little Italy, Chinatown and Le Breton flats from Highway 417 north to the Ottawa River. These blocks have every one of the four prerequisites for diversity except number 2: the blocks are not short.

Long blocks alongside a busy thoroughfare combined with different neighbourhoods on either side of the thoroughfare can create an undesirable effect in Jacobs’ analysis: a border vacuum.

A border vacuum exists when the differences between the adjoining neighbourhoods are great enough that few people cross over to the other side. Fortunately, this is not the case with Bronson Avenue, although some people do talk about “the good side of Bronson” when referring to the east side, which forms part of Centretown and the Glebe.

However, to the cars that zoom along Bronson Avenue, the neighbourhoods, shops and cafés along that street are invisible, making the drivers – and sometimes passengers – exist in their own vacuum during their dash down the street to commute to work or to hurry to or from the airport.

And not everyone agrees with Jane Jacobs’ analyses. Witold Rybczynski, an architect, writer and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said in his new book, Makeshift Metropolis, that Jacobs’ attempts to save working-class neighbourhoods saved them all right – for the yuppies and the brownstoners.

However, taking Boston’s North End and New York City’s Greenwich Village as models for the failure of Jacobs’ methods may not be fair. Jane herself said that it would always be neighbourhoods on the edges of respectability where artists, small new businesses and specialty stores will flourish. As property values rise, these affordable areas keep shifting further out – but they still exist.

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