A timely revisitation of renowned urbanist-activist Jane Jacobs' lifework, What We See invites thirty pundits and practitioners across fields to refresh Jacobs' economic, social and urban planning theories for the present day. Combining personal and professional observations with meditations on Jacobs' insights, essayists bring their diverse experience to bear to sketch the blueprints for the living city.
The book models itself after Jacobs' collaborative approach to city and community building, asking community members and niche specialists to share their knowledge with a broader community, to work together toward a common goal of building the 21st-century city.
The resulting collection of original essays expounds and expands Jacobs' ideas on the qualities of a vibrant, robust urban area. It offers the generalist, the activist, and the urban planner practical examples of the benefits of planning that encourages community participation, pedestrianism, diversity, environmental responsibility, and self-sufficiency.
Bob Sirman, director of the Canada Council for the Arts, describes how built form should be an embodiment of a community narrative. Daniel Kemmis, former Mayor of Missoula, shares an imagined dialog with Jacobs, discussing the delicate interconnection between cities and their surrounding rural areas. And Roberta Brandes Gratz—urban critic, author, and former head of Public Policy of the New York State Preservation League—asserts the importance of architectural preservation to environmentally sound urban planning practices.
What We See asks us all to join the conversation about next steps for shaping socially just, environmentally friendly, and economically prosperous urban communities.
Title What We See
Subtitle Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs
Foreword: Michael Sorkin, Jane's Spectacles
Introduction: Stephen Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth, Eyes Wide Open
Section 1: Vitality of the Neighborhood
1.1 Deanne Taylor, Between Utopias
1.2 Ray Suarez, Jane Jacobs and the "Battle for the Street"
1.3 Sanford Ikeda, The Mirage of the Efficient City
1.4 Nabeel Hamdi, The Intelligence of Informality
1.5 Nan Ellin, The Tao of Urbanism: Integrating Observation with Action
Section 2: The Virtues of Seeing
2.1 Arlene Goldbard, Nine Ways of Looking at Ourselves (Looking at Cities)
2.2 Mindy Thompson Fullilove, The Logic of Small Pieces: A Story in Three Ballets
2.3 Alexie M. Torres-Fleming, Of Things Seen and Unseen
2.4 Rob Cowan, The Fine Arts of Seeing: Professions, Places, Arts, and Urban Design
Section 3: Cities, Villages, Streets
3.1 Daniel Kemmis, Cities and the Wealth of Places
3.2 Elizabeth Macdonald and Allan Jacobs, Queen Street
3.3 Kenneth Greenberg, The Interconnectedness of Things
3.4 David Crombie, Jane Jacobs: The Toronto Experience
3.5 Matias Sendoa Echanove & Rahul Srivastava, The Village Inside
Section 4: The Organized Complexity Of Planning
4.1 James Stockard, The Obligation to Listen, Learn and Teach—Patiently
4.2 Robert Sirman, Built Form and the Metaphor of Storytelling
4.3 Chester Hartman, Steps Toward a Just Metropolis
4.4 Peter Zlonicky, Illuminating Germany: Observations on Urban Planning Policies in the Light of Jane Jacobs
4.5 Jaime Lerner, Reviving Cities
Section 5: Design for Nature, Design for People
5.1 Janine Benyus, Recognizing What Works: A Conscious Emulation of Life's Genius
5.2 Hillary Brown, "Codevelopment" as a Principle for Next Generation Infrastructure
5.3 Richard Register, Jane Jacobs Basics
5.4 Roberta Brandes Gratz, Jane Jacobs: Environmental Preservationist
5.5 Jan Gehl, For You Jane
5.6 Janette Sadik-Khan, Think of a City and What Comes to Mind? Its Streets
5.7 Clare Cooper Marcus, The Needs of Children in Contemporary Cities
Section 6: Economic Instinct
6.1 Saskia Sassen, When Places Have Deep Economic Histories
6.2 Susan Witt, The Grace of Import Replacement
6.3 Pierre Desrochers & Samuli Leppälä, Rethinking "Jacobs Spillovers," or How Diverse Cities Actually Make Individuals More Creative and Economically Successful
6.4 Ron Shiffman, Beyond Green Jobs: Seeking a New Paradigm
Epilogue: Mary Rowe, Jane's Cup of Tea
Check out the interactive What We See website for more information
I encourage anyone who is interested in our cities and economies, how they work and how they can be vibrant and flourishing to read this book. I regret that I couldn't choose from the essays which illustrations or quotes or insights to highlight in a single review, there is just too much quality.
Standing on Jacobs's shoulders, as it were, the selections here range from arguments like Sirman’s to quieter reminiscences about the woman’s influence, meditations on urban spaces to nuts-and-bolts discussions of environmental initiatives, portraits of cities to stories about revitalized neighborhoods. There is even an imagined conversation between political figure and community advocate Daniel Kemmis and Jacobs herself, as the two "stroll" through Missoula, Montana.
In one of the collection’s most memorable pieces, Clare Cooper Marcus, a professor at Berkeley, writes about “cluster housing,” a trend in which homes are built around a shared green space where children (and parents, too) can play in nature, safe from traffic and yet still within earshot of a mother’s dinner shout.
In another Janine Benyus tells a story about her work in biomimicry, the study of nature’s designs to deal sustainably and smartly with our engineering problems.
It is a new, entrepreneurial, 21st-century outlook. Indeed, the true message of What We See is that we have a fresh generation of urban thought leaders who have learned from Jane Jacobs, but are intelligent, passionate, and innovative enough to develop their own ideas, messages, and strategies for action.
With that in mind, the book is an important one because while the ideas of Jane Jacobs have appeal for many people, in the end they are largely discarded in the interest of practicality and control. But as Sanford Ikeda reminds us in What We See, the city has no purpose or end in itself. Great cities enable the better part of its inhabitants to be free to pursue their own diverse interests with the maximum likelihood of success.
As a nation, we are rediscovering cities. And so we must continue to rediscover and advance the observations of Jane Jacobs. The best cities and the best neighborhoods are the ones with the widest variety of interests and the most diverse stakeholders. Anytime we use top-down planning to remake a place, the diversity of interests decreases. The ideas of Jane Jacobs will have won out only when this is understood.
What we see can help us learn to look, and understand.
Given the nature of the topic and variety of perspectives, certain essays are very academic, with long lists of references to match. This is balanced, however, by others that are more digestible and readily accessible by the lay reader - not unlike Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The ultimate strength of gathering and showcasing such a diverse collection of writings is that everyone is bound to find a number of essays that resonate with them, and at least one that inspires them.
In the end, however, what you’ll want to do most is reread Jane’s books. . . and that is definitely an achievement that the editors can be proud of.
The essays in What We See remind us that cities are inefficient, but in a good, necessary way, that they exist to allow inhabitants to pursue a wide range of dreams and goals, that they are complex and can be seemingly poised on the edge of chaos between the yin and yang of "I" the individual and "We" the body of citizens.
Jacobs was a wise and inspiring canary in the coalmine to the arrogance and abuse of the Redevelopment Agencies. Is she relevant today? In What We See, twenty-five writers say yes, then advance her observations in the realms of the environment, sustainability and the just metropolis.
The idea for What We See originated with the Jacobs-oriented Center for the Living City as a celebration honoring Jacobs, but the book took on a different form under Elizabeth's guidance. "I thought Jane would not have wanted a book about her," Elizabeth says, noting that two histories centering on her
and a biography have recently been published. “Instead, we invited people from diverse fields to write their own ideas about how things work and describe the systems they see operating now and into the future.”
Mary Rowe, one of the organizers of the conference told us, "It's a Jane Jacobs world now," and that we need to remember Jacobs was more about process, less about ideology. Says Rowe, Jacobs “was an early identifier of complexity, a supporter of organic design and diversities of all kinds, and believed everything was relational–nothing has a single cause. She had an extreme resistance to big, universal, grand one size fits all efforts from the public or private sector and believed physical, economic and ethical processes needed to interact to create the process of the city. Today there is a growing sense of what sustainable, organic, livable cities should be but there is a need to discuss the obstacles to that occurring.”
The Bellagio Framework, as put forth by the participants of Jane Jacobs Revisited is as follows:
The purpose of the city is to provide sustainable environments that allow all people to live, work, and achieve their aspirations in an environment that supports self-determination and promotes that common good.
1. Build a city of choices, an urban archipelago that offers diversity and fosters innovation.
2. Make places that promote socioeconomic mixing, openness, and cultural exchange.
3. Actively integrate nature and the city in shared spaces that bring people joy.
4. Ensure environmental health and human security.
5. Encourage compact land use with diverse physical grain, matching density, infrastructure and local conditions.
Some people set the pace for the future of advancing thought. What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs is a collection of essays dedicated to the thoughts and ideas of Jane Jacobs who through her work set much of the foundation for modern city planning, the idea of turning a city into a more perfect place to work and live. With ideas on encouraging prosperity, working with people, the right level of complexity, and more, What We See is a must for anyone wants to understand the forwarding thoughts surrounding city planning.
What We See reaches beyond the platitudes about Jacobs' work. It features stories of her ideals played out in specific places and spaces by the people she has inspired and those who share an affinity with the spirit (and not just the letter) of her work. . . Jacobs has, deservedly, become the "patron saint" of progressive planning--annointed, revered, almost untouchable. Celebratory and reflective, What We See revels in Jacobs' godlike status while trying to bring a sense of realness to an intellectual celebrity. . . read alongside Jacobs' works, this book points towards a contextualization and deeper understanding of her legacy, in planning and fields beyond.
- Anusha Venkataraman
What We See
"How can one resist cheering on this urban original? As one reads these essays by the thoughtful and dedicated people Jane Jacobs inspired through her writing, her organizing, her telephone calling, her patternspotting, her sidewalk ballets, we see how she and our neighborhoods live on through her ideas."
—Victor S. Navasky, Publisher Emeritus, The Nation, and author, A Matter of Opinion
What We See
"Jane Jacobs' work wouldn't have been complete if it hadn't inspired others to carry it on, and evolve Jane’s groundbreaking accomplishments so that the essential kernel of thought remains relevant for future generations. The essayists in What We See have built on those essential footholds that people who have never heard of Jane Jacobs will benefit from for decades."
—Majora Carter, founder, Sustainable South Bronx; winner, Rachel Carson Award and Paul Wellstone Award
What We See
"Exuberant, stimulating collection of essays on a person who would be a saint or even an angel sent to us to uncover what really helps us to be alive in our communities. There is no better place to start than this book to see the wisdom Jane Jacobs so astutely covered almost 50 years ago. We are at the precipice of a new era and Jane Jacobs and her aficionados can show us what it could look like. Hallelujah! Hallelujah!"
—Fred Kent, President, Project for Public Spaces
What We See
"What We See is a moving and enlightening tribute to the ideas and methods of Jane Jacobs from a diverse set of authors, many of whom knew and revered Jane. Together the essays offer a portrait of this revolutionary thinker that will inspire others to observe closely, contemplate broadly, and engage civically."
—Glenna Lang, coauthor of Genius of Common Sense
What We See
"The Jane Jacobs legacy lives on, in this extraordinary collection of essays. The reflections on this remarkable woman, and the still-unfolding project of city-building today, are a joy to read."
—Anthony Flint, author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City
It is fruitless, however, to search for some dramatic key element or kingpin which, if made clear, will clarify all. No single element in a city is, in truth, the kingpin or the key. The mixture itself is kingpin, and its mutual support is the order.
-The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961.
Often times, volumes or compendiums meant to celebrate the life's work of a single individual fall short of capturing the true spirit of the subject. The problem of capturing the impact that one person has had on a single profession is difficult enough; a task whose difficulty is only compounded when the subject of the compendium has influenced a wide array of professions, movements and causes.
In the wide world of planning – encompassing urban, city and regional planning specialties – Jane Jacobs' name is consistently atop the lists of most influential and inspiring planners. Ironically, Jane wasn't a planner (in the traditional sense of the term). Jane Jacobs was – and still is – much more than simply a planner who helped us to see and, almost more importantly, recognize the wonderful intricacies of the urban organism.
Never one to adhere to conventional labels, she embodied a long list of titles which have been associated with her life and her life's work. Author; Journalist; Activist; Urbanist; Economic Theorist; Community Organizer; and least of all, Planner.
Jane proved again and again through her insightful observations that more often than not, the most successful and vibrant neighborhoods were the exception to the rule; the rule, of course, being the restrictive and often confining dogmatic-based planning rules and regulations which stifle the organic development of neighborhoods and cities.
Just as she showed us nearly fifty years ago that "the mixture itself is kingpin, and its mutual support is the order", What We See holds true to this notion with an impressive and diverse mix of authors whose backgrounds could double for a description of the residents of a thriving, vibrant city neighborhood or as a description of an individual whose life and work seemed to defy conventional labels and descriptions.
What We See is a collection of essays which succeeds in capturing the true spirit of Jane’s life and work. The authors do not simply espouse all of the ideas, notions and views which Jane pioneered simply to hear themselves speak; quite the contrary, these essays provide a firsthand demonstration which allows us to see how people from a myriad of professions and backgrounds are taking action to make our cities better places.
The essays, consisting of works ranging from Jacobsian-inspired speeches to stories of self-realization and actualization to imagined conversations with Jane, are masterfully grouped into six distinct, yet connected sections.
From the first moment when the authors begin to discuss The Vitality of the Neighborhood (Section One) to the final thoughts on Economic Instincts (Section Six); the words and – more importantly – the actions of the authors inspire the reader to truly examine and see the urban organism through not only new lenses, but to return to the lenses which allow us to see what we take for granted through "fresh eyes".
As we try and see the city, we are reminded to examine our Virtues of Seeing (Section Two) so that we may observe the urban organism through a variety of lenses; allowing us to truly see how our Cities, Villages and Streets (Section Three) evolve and thrive. It is through these lenses that we are inspired to make our streets, our neighborhoods, our cities and ultimately our society better places.
These lenses also provide us with insight into the tumultuous relationship between restrictive, dogmatic planning policies and the practices, or for lack of a better term, the notions of Serendipitous Planning (Section Four) that allows for the natural and organic development of neighborhoods and cities Designed For Nature and Designed For People (Section Five).
Because in reality, as many of the officials of struggling American metropolises will certainly tell you, a city is useless without people who are active participants in the evolution and development of the living urban organism.
The stories contained within the pages of What We See allow us to not only examine how our cities and neighborhoods are developing and changing, but the actions of the authors provide the reader with the inspiration to begin to make a difference in their own neighborhood, city, region and life. I would challenge anyone to read this book and not feel the burning desire to initiate positive change within their own neighborhood, community or city.
What We See is an excellent companion to any of Jane Jacob’s works. The essays within What We See capture Jane’s incredible ability to observe and understand the city, neighborhood and region as a functioning and thriving organism in which design, character and people contribute to the overall vibrancy and life of the urban fabric.
The ideals which Jane lived by and conveyed throughout her life’s work are fantastically captured in the actions of the authors of What We See. When we observe What We See as a whole, it is clear that it will quickly become a required addition to the library of any designer, planner, artist, activist, community organizer, urbanist or city dweller.
What We See is notable for the breadth of its contributors. Besides the predictable collection of architects, planners and politicians (not that there's anything wrong with them), perhaps the most interesting contributions are from people supposedly "outside her field" - the biologist, the youth minister, the playwright. Of course, the point is not much was outside Jacob's field, her lesson is not to search for the predictable but to see what is.
My blogs of late have told stories of walkability and overcoming complexity - ingredients of the safe and vital neighborhood. There are more and I've been reading about them in a great new book: What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (New Village Press, 2010).
I'm not usually a fan of non-fiction anthologies which, having authored a crime prevention anthology myself, is probably just evidence of my own inconsistency. Regardless, What We See is an exception to my rule. It is a fabulous read!
- Gregory Saville
What We See
Advance Praise for What We See:
"It's as if Jane Jacobs' bright eye hadn't dimmed, that she's still startling us with her predictably unpredictable insights into what needs to be done to protect and cultivate wondrous, live cities. In the hands of this book's essay writers, new thoughts sprout, all as true to Jane's spirit and inventive urbanity as the gardens (intellectual and physical) she cultivated in her lifetime."
—Neal Peirce, Chairman, The Citistates Group, journalist, and author of Boundary Crossers: Community Leadership for a Global Age
What We See
"In this new book are the testimonials of Jane's children. These folks, in their writing and work, are building on what she began back in the '60s. It's taken a long time, but it's happening."
- David Byrne, musician, artist, and author of Bicycle Diaries
What We See
"This book is a passionate celebration: a delicious international and interdisciplinary banquet of offerings to honor the passionate and multifaceted work of our beloved urbanist, Jane Jacobs."
—Wendy Sarkissian, PhD, author of Kitchen Table Sustainability and Creative Community Planning
When Planetizen conducted a survey last year to identify the top urban thinkers of all time, the Number 1 spot on the list was captured by Jane Jacobs. Whether the choice was correct or not — the poll's participants were disproportionately Americans — Jacobs certainly remains an inspiration, four years after her death at age 89.
- Philip Langdon
What We See
"Just in its title, 'What We See' telegraphs the most important point Jane Jacobs ever made—don't go into a city environment with preset notions of how things are supposed to work; instead, enter the space with as open a mind as you can muster and seek to observe how things actually work. . . What We See is a report back to Jane to tell her what we learned and how it has changed our cities and our lives."
—Keith Bartholomew, Assistant Professor, College of Architecture and Planning, University of Utah, coauthor, Growing Cooler: The Evidence on Urban Development and Climate Change
What We See
"I had never understood quite so clearly the effective power of Jane Jacob's writing—no, her clear-headed observation—as I did reading What We See. Maybe that's really the point of writing. That if you take the time to look, to really observe, then you see what is happening, and, with the clarity of that vision, you can act to save neighborhoods."
—Nancy Milford, scholar, lecturer, and author of Zelda and Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay.
News from the Commons
The Commons is our blog, calendar, and online magazine.