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(Emily Flake/The Globe and Mail)
(Emily Flake/The Globe and Mail)

Jane Jacobs: Honoured in the breach Add to ...

Getting a call out of the blue from a great thinker of one's age comes as quite a surprise. That's how I felt when Jane Jacobs phoned The Globe one day in early 2005, asking about a small, wonkish point in a feature I had written - census data showing that some Toronto wards with many high rises were also the least dense, and vice-versa.

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"That's a real nugget," Ms. Jacobs said, adding that lot sizes and building heights often matter less to density than the land used for driving and parking. "This is important."

The celebrated author on urbanism, economics and philosophy was 88. She had only 15 months more to live. Her final book, Dark Age Ahead, was behind her. But she was still on the alert for "nuggets" to reveal the forces that shape cities - a mission she'd carry on to the end.

Still, she seemed afraid her quest would never be widely understood, in part because news media were increasingly opting for simplistic explanations. (And that was before Twitter.)

Now, five years after her death and 50 years after the 1961 appearance of her once-revolutionary treatise, The Death and Life of American Cities, are her fears being borne out?

While her ideas are cited continually in discussions of urban affairs, their realization is arguably as far off as ever - in part because her followers are finding there are no shortcuts through her complex system of thought.

Walking, looking and talking

One way people honour Ms. Jacobs happens this weekend, when many will follow her model - walking, observing and describing what they see - in guided strolls called Jane's Walks.

"People close to her felt she wouldn't want a monument, or her name on a park," says Jane Farrow, the former CBC broadcaster who runs the program. "The sense was it would be more fitting to get people out walking, connecting with neighbourhoods, discussing her ideas."

The first year, 2007, there were 27 walks, all in Toronto. This year there will be nearly 500 groups of people in 16 countries.

But that's just the start. In September, Random House will release a 50th-anniversary edition of The Death and Life, and this spring sees two new essay collections and her long-time friend Ken Greenberg's Walking Home: The Life and Lessons of a City Builder. Last year at least three major books dealt with her ideas.

Yet Ms. Jacobs herself hated it when reporters called her an "urban guru." Once, when I made a mildly reverential comment about The Death and Life, she bristled, "Oh come on," and then unloaded: "Nice words from politicians, planners and columnists hardly matter when we continually repeat mistakes we made decades ago. It's like we made some progress, then hit a wall.

"Many places still have zoning laws on the books ensuring we repeat the mistakes. The bureaucratic machinery enforces bad planning and design, and nobody thinks to question a property-tax system that encourages sprawl and all its hidden costs."

She had no time for ideology - left, right or whatever - and felt that many who invoke her name "cherry-pick ideas to suit their purposes."

That urban planners had eventually come to accept the benefits of density was no conso- lation: "In the absence of a pedestrian scale, density can be big trouble." Few people, she felt, saw what she really meant.

"Maybe you kinda blew it," I said, half in jest: "You buried a crucial part of your thesis on page 150. Lots of people in power who need to read the book probably don't reach page 150."

She laughed, triggering a scary sounding coughing fit that made me consider hanging up and calling 911.

When it passed, her first words were: "I know what you're getting at, but I wouldn't have written it any other way."

Perhaps. But expecting such patience may be at odds with an era of ever-shortening attention spans.

The Galileo of mixed use?

Vancouver planning chief Brent Toderian, author James Howard Kunstler and former Toronto mayor John Sewell all sympathize with Ms. Jacobs's frustrations, but they seem more optimistic about her likely legacy.

"There isn't a person or book more influential in creating 'Vancouverism' than Jane and The Death and Life," says Mr. Toderian. "I know what she means about people misunderstanding density - that's why we emphasize density done well rather than density as a mathematical exercise. [But]people 'round the world praise Vancouver's livability, and she had a big hand in it."

Mr. Kunstler, known for the 1993 bestseller The Geography of Nowhere, says we still develop badly because politics inhibit "changing the predictable rules of a very profitable game." But he expects Ms. Jacobs's effect to increase as urban crises erupt in coming decades: "She might not be fully appreciated until 2061, but nobody threw a cocktail party for Galileo in his time."

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