Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered

[Originally published in early January 2009]

As many of my readers know, I was fortunate and honoured to win the Jane Jacobs Prize in 2005 for my long-standing advocacy of transit improvements in Toronto.  This was the last year the prize was awarded while Jane was still alive.

I remember, warmly, sitting beside her on the stage with other prizewinners, John Sewell and David Miller as Jane spoke so warmly of our “new Mayor” (Miller), but scathingly about the dysfunctional Planning Department so dominated by the suburban, North York mentality.  Paul Bedford, then recently-retired as Chief Planner, was in the audience nearby and in her sights.

A documentary on Jane Jacobs will appear on February 18 on TVO.  Here is their press release.

The View From Here:
Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered – World premiere

Airs on TVO Wednesday February 18, 2009 at 10 pm.  (Repeats Sunday February 22 at 10:35 pm and Wednesday morning — i.e., late night Tuesday — February 25 at 1 am)
52 minutes

Produced by Bliss Pictures Inc. in association with TVO, Knowledge Network and SCN

When Jane Jacobs died in 2006, Canada lost one of its loudest and most persistent urban voices. What Jacobs advocated is well known: short blocks, mixed-use buildings and diverse neighbourhoods. Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered considers the livable city: an issue that directly impacts the quality of life of the majority of the world’s population.

The documentary examines the champion of neighbourhood activism’s legacy, through two redevelopment disputes: one in New York and the other in Toronto. These disputes raise many of the same issues Jacobs encountered 50 years ago. It also looks at Vancouver, a city frequently put forward as a shining example of Jacobs’ livable city philosophy.

The documentary asks “Is Jane Jacobs’ legacy intact?” and, more to the point, “Is it still valid?”

16 thoughts on “Urban Goddess: Jane Jacobs Reconsidered

  1. Thanks for the TV tip; I will be sure to tune in to this program when it airs.

    It is important to remember that Jane Jacobs’ legacy extends much further than just Toronto. It is a measure of her impact that, when Barrack Obama was handed a book by a supporter who described it as ‘the most important book on cities, ever’, the president-elect immediately asked: “Is it by Jane Jacobs?”


  2. My biggest problem with Jane was that she never really explained *how* gentrification and skyrocketing real estate prices downtown could be “overcome” or stopped. Would anyone care to comment on that?


  3. David

    Not just cities in North America … cities all over the world would benefit from people like Jane who put people first in cities.

    This is only one example of Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, which recently got a UNESCO heritage listing – which has turned into carte blanche for the evicting of residents and businesses run by and needed by local residents in favour of tourist-related businesses owned by non-local residents.


    Cheers, Moaz


  4. I wonder how long it will be before this documentary gets shown outside the TVO network? Hopefully it will be picked up by KNOW (the nearest BC equivalent). Or will it be on line somewhere?


  5. Important and interesting work in earlier years was somewhat blotted by her involvement in the last year of her life with a group trying to stop some construction at a local school. I believe she suggested that the school relocate to the suburbs. This wasn’t not a great message in support of cultivating neighbourhoods – more like plain old NIMBY. Cities are not for cars, planes or schools? Come now.

    Steve: I believe that part of the issue was that the school wanted to expand and in the process create even more car traffic for students coming to the campus. In the process, more of the neighbourhood would be lost.


  6. stephen: I agree and hope KNOW picks it up. I will have to keep an eye out for it. I would really like to see it.

    Steve: Thanks for all your work on the site. I haven’t lived in TO for 40 years, but I still try to ride transit at least once every time I am in town and reading about [it] fills the need in the meantime.


  7. re: Steve’s statement – “I believe that part of the issue was that the school wanted to expand and in the process create even more car traffic for students coming to the campus. In the process, more of the neighbourhood would be lost.”

    Well – all the schools around our neighbourhood have huge traffic jams of SUVs and minivans at specific times – mostly on side streets. I don’t think anyone thinks that The Beach is ‘lost’ because of it. This makes no sense.

    Steve: The issue was of a school growing considerably beyond its original size and therefore adding to the neighbourhood impact. Children in the beach may not actually walk anywhere these days, but that’s no reason why other neighbourhoods should be forced to put up with traffic caused by a commercial operation (a private school) expanding its scope in a residential area.


  8. A private school is no more “commercial” than a church, charitable foundation. Commercial means intended to make a profit.

    I’m not sure what Ms. Jacobs’ thinking was.

    Now that I read what information is available (http://www.omb.gov.on.ca/e-decisions/pl050662_%233420.pdf), the group that opposed the building plans – the so-called “Neighbours of St. Alban’s Park” – withdrew objections to the traffic and transportation issues.

    “Immediately prior to Ms Balint being called to the stand, and one week after the hearing began, counsel for NoSAP advised the Board that NoSAP was no longer pursuing the traffic and transportation issues it had placed on the Issue List and would not be calling any evidence in support of those issues and in opposition to the proposal.”

    During the course of the OMB hearing, this group also withdrew 13 out of 14 witnesses. They also attempted to pull their last witness while he was still on the stand. “NoSAP” appears to be have been little more than a thinly disguised vendetta against the school. All I can say is that this is appalling.

    I hope for her sake, Ms. Jacobs was in no way affiliated with this group.


  9. I time shifted the special on Jane Jacobs and the two shows that appeared before it, “Escape From the Suburbs” and “The End of Suburbia.” It was interesting that both show predicted a crash in the stock market and a decline in real estate values. These shows were done in 2004 and 2007. They both said that hydrogen power was a non starter as it did not create energy but only provided a greatly inefficient way of storing energy. They both called for a return to higher density cities with diversified neighbourhoods.

    This Friday at 3:00 a. m. there is a show on TVO called E2 Transport, a show on the revival of public transit in Portland. I am going to record it and watch it at a more reasonable tiem.


  10. M. Briganti
    My biggest problem with Jane was that she never really explained *how* gentrification and skyrocketing real estate prices downtown could be “overcome” or stopped. Would anyone care to comment on that?

    An interesting question, and one that no one here at least has even attempted to answer.

    Jacobs forecast of a stock market and real estate crash has proved prescient, perhaps, but that real estate crash is going to hit downtown condos every bit as much as suburban single family dwellings.


  11. Well, I don’t honestly think gentrification is bad – in that people re-invest in buildings that are rundown. Was Jacobs for or against gentrification? It seems that the results of Jacobs thinking in TO lean more towards fossilization and enclavism rather than growth, densification and urbanism.


  12. Re: Dave R in the Beach:

    I found the same issue. Particularly with modern Jacobsian (sic?) supporters. One of the women interviewed in the show was talking about a glass condo being built in Toronto. How it’s only single use (residential), and I believe her comment was that once (if) people move out of that condo building (highly unlikely that any condo/apartment would become completely vacant) it could not be used for any other purpose (comm, ind, etc).

    My argument would be that any residential development is virtually locked into being solely used for residential purposes, be it quaint victorian townhomes, suburban mcmansions, or condo towers. It’s very difficult to turn any residential into a warehouse or store. Sure we’ve seen some homes turned into service industry uses (Law, Accounting, art, etc) but it is rare and often still used for residential by the occupant.

    To lump any intensification (such as with condo towers), architectual merit aside, with suburban sprawl type development and say it’s bad or anti-urban (Jacobsion urban in this case) is short sighted I feel. And makes some Jacobs supporters sound like NIMBY’s.

    I wonder have people taken their own views and tried to filter it through Jane’s teachings, thus tainting her intentions? Or is this what Jane was really all about.

    Steve: I think that many people take Jane’s words in an almost biblical context, in the sense that you can find justification for any position if you look hard enough, and if you can’t (or are just too lazy), you make something up and assume that your audience won’t do the spadework needed to discredit you.

    Jane was about the preservation of neighbourhoods as working, human enterprises. This is not incompatible with high rises per se, but if you create a residential monoculture, you have all the problems that “the corner store” isn’t at the corner any more. “The street” is occupied not by people who know each other and know all the nooks and crannies of their neighbourhood because they drive through it rather than walking and living in it.

    Try to imagine the Annex without the commercial strips on Bloor, Bathurst, Spadina, not to mention the little out of the way places only the locals know exist. Imagine North Riverdale and the Playter Estates (roughly my neighbourhood) without the commercial strips on Danforth and Broadview.

    These are self-contained parts of the city where it is possible to live as a pedestrian much of the time, and where interaction between locals and visitors, between shopkeepers and regular customers, is an inherent part of daily life.

    Now think of the condos on the railway lands and weep. At least they have the “old” city nearby, and it’s not a completely lost cause.


  13. Given the legal structure of a condo, the conversion to other use is not likely. I’m not sure why anyone would worry about that. Residential structures are not usually great for other uses. As an example – if you’ve been in a hotel that’s been created by converted from a rental appartment building you’ll notice that there aren’t enough elevators. (I try to avoid these places on my business travels.)

    Anyway, isolated corner stores are disappearing one-by-one. There are a number of reasons for this: fewer smokers, hold-ups, and no foot traffic generated by other stores seemingly all contributing. (One corner store in this area was held up 10 times – and we’re not a high crime neighbourhood. It’s now a sewing center. )

    We do have Queen st – but it’s not walkable distance for everyone – especially in Winter and hilly terrain.

    We have the mixed use low rise condos along Queen – W of Woodbine. These have been very slow to be rented out – not sure why exactly. I think merchants find that if they are two far from Queen and Lee, they don’t get the foot traffic from people who come to the Beach.


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