June 2017
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City Builder Book Club: MAS Staffer Mary Rowe on Death and Life 

Jane Jacobs Death and LifeMary W. Rowe, vice president of strategy and partnerships at MAS, is this week’s guest writer for City Builder Book Club. The City Builder Book Club is a joint venture between the Centre for City Ecology and Creative Urban Projects to facilitate a deeper understanding of how cities work by hosting a guided reading and discussion of books that have developed and challenged ideas on urbanism. This winter, the book club is reading at book many of us at MAS hold dear, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Read an excerpt from Mary’s article below, or read it in its entirety here. You can also read along with the book club, which is reading 1-2 chapters per week, through April. The reading schedule is listed their website.     Mary Rowe on the Introduction: Why you will read and reread this book …This week we are to be reading the Introduction. On the page facing it, Jacobs chose to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose ideas she greatly admired. I am struck by the hopefulness of the quote she chose:
“…more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.” (Jacobs quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Front matter, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, New York, 1961.)
The Introduction begins with a sentence for which she is now—in professional planning circles—infamous. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” The chapter—which is really a tour de force, summarizing the ideas that she will lay out in detail and the notions that will become, over time, generally accepted as the contemporary understanding of how great, large, complex cities thrive, or decline. But that first sentence has led what may have already been a narcissistically-preoccupied profession—urban planning—into thinking this book, and therefore city-building, is about them. (Attention readers who happen to be planners: You probably think this book is about you, don’t you…don’t you…?). It really isn’t. What we’ve seen in my lifetime (I am just slightly older than the book) is the democratization of city-building, with Jacobs’ neutralizing the traditional deference paid to ‘experts’, in favour of the real experience of people. Her practical, common sense analysis and shunning of grand approaches and universal theories was by her own powers—as Holmes advocated—by which she made sense of the city. She challenges her readers to do so also. Where has this left the profession of planning? If lay people—who live, work, and use the city in every way—know best what they need and want from it, what “expertise” does a planner bring? This is a worthy question, to which lots of planners have creatively responded (including several you will read here, in subsequent posts). But Death and Life is not about planning or planners. It’s about life. As mentioned earlier, Jacobs wrote a new essay for the front matter of the 1992 edition, to include with the original Introduction. If your edition doesn’t include it, you might want to borrow a friend’s 1992 book or read an excerpt online as it provides a further challenge from the author to better understand how cities work, and the still generally unheeded implications for their planning and governance. Reading Death and Life first in the Jacobs canon is important because the concepts here underpin her work that follows. In reflection you can see the seeds of subsequent volumes—how city economies grow, the challenges of governance and dependencies on “senior” governments, the importance of seeing connections—the “web” of organized complexity, her distrust of large “schemes” or one-size-fits-all universals (from the “right” or the “left”). And she lays out her method, to which you will see she returns again and again, as her “tactics for understanding”:
  • think about processes, not outcomes;
  • work inductively, not developing theories and applying them; and
  • look for the “un-average”—clues that explain things in smaller instances and quantities that may be instructive at larger scales. (For more information on this, see the final chapter of Death and Life, “The Kind of Problem a City Is”.)
Death and Life is an eloquent and rigorous primer of the Jacobs way. And if you’re like me, you’ll return to Death and Life again and again, as a reminder to pay attention to what you are seeing… Continue reading