“You’ve got to get out and walk.” Writer and activist, Jane Jacobs
October 29th, 2010, 5:53 pm
For Jane Jacobs, walking was essential to understanding how any city worked—or didn’t. In “Downtown is for People,” her seminal 1958 article for Fortune Magazine, Jacobs encouraged citizens to take part in the planning and design of their own cities. She avowed, “…what is needed is an observant eye, curiosity about people, and a willingness to walk.” And walk she did. On West 57th St., where MAS now has its offices, she observed the enlivening effect of the street’s “two shifts” of foot traffic. It was busy night and day thanks to its mix of offices, apartments, shops, restaurants and the presence of Carnegie Hall. “Sustainability” was not part of an urbanist’s vocabulary 50 years ago, but she noted as she walked that the “…tendency to become denser is a fundamental quality of downtown and it persists for good and sensible reasons.” Today, density is recognized as the core element of sustainable cities. Jacobs walked not only in the cities where she lived, but also in every city she visited and she urged others to do the same. She thought they too should “…insist on an hour’s walk in the loveliest park, the finest public square in town, and where there is a handy bench. . . sit and watch the people for a while.” She didn’t focus on walking for transportation or health (as will some of this year’s Jane Jacobs’ Forum), but she certainly found delight. There was the pleasure of the social life of the sidewalk, the “. . . small change from which a city’s wealth of public life must grow,” and the fun of experiencing the “individuality or whim or surprise” of any city “with a tradition or flavor of its own.” A young woman at the MAS Summit asked who was today’s Jane Jacobs. No one within hearing distance had a ready answer. One thing for sure, she (or he) is exploring a city on foot.