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

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

Mr. Sewell says it's "tragic" that politicians merely pay her lip service: "In Ontario, I'm aware of no provincial policies and no official plans that reflect some of the key points she raised." But he sees hope in "the simplicity and applicability" of her approach.

"What she's saying is: Forget the theories. If you want to make really good cities, go out and look for yourself at good parts of cities, places that feel right. Figure out why they work, then replicate them."

The 'housewife' cleaned house

The first sentence of The Death and Life is: "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding." It's no surprise that some in the field counterattacked, citing her lack of credentials. And a few still do.

Ridiculed as a "housewife," Ms. Jacobs had taken university courses but never bothered to graduate. Undaunted, the amateur would challenge key assumptions of classical economics in her first two books after she and her family moved to Toronto from New York in 1968.

Canadian-raised architect and author Witold Rybczynski, who wrote about Ms. Jacobs in last year's Makeshift Metropolis, complains that she had gaping holes in her historical knowledge, overestimated planners' influence and underestimated suburbia's lure: "Not everyone wants 24-hour street life and, unlike Greenwich Village, most working-class districts are depressing. It's no surprise people would want to get away from that."

Still, he calls The Death and Life "the dominant book about planning of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps of the entire century."

Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, author of last year's Triumph of the City, says her central idea that "cities are what real people make of them," not buildings and infrastructure, "has, by and large, gotten through in the planning community."

But Mr. Glaeser also argues that for the environment and the economy, urban density must get vertical: "She was too afraid of new buildings, too afraid of height and high density."

His comments have sparked debate. In a speech in Toronto, New York-based critic Roberta Brandes Gratz called his criticisms an "outrage." And Mr. Sewell says he "has so misinter- preted Jane's beliefs on density and tall buildings, it's stunning."

But he vehemently stands by his words. He adds that healthy city cores are prohibitively expensive in part because of Ms. Jacobs's influence on preservation and height: "I can't help thinking she wouldn't be pleased that the Greenwich Village of her day, which was affordable to ordinary New Yorkers, is [now]a preserve of the ultra-rich where town-homes start at $5-million."

Ms. Jacobs, however, felt that gentrification issues proved her right about which areas work: "Until the car became a factor, we built primarily for pedestrians," she told me in 2004. "Those places are capable of self-regeneration." Since then, however, costs in "unslummed" neighbourhoods have soared because "we stopped building places worth gentrifying, so demand far and increasingly outstrips supply."

About that buried thesis

There are more intertwined concepts in The Death and Life than any newspaper story can outline.

But page 150, my mention of which set off Ms. Jacobs's cough, lists four conditions for any part of a city to generate "exuberant diversity": that districts have a mix of primary uses; that most blocks be short; that buildings be of various ages; and that the area have sufficient density. It was indispensable that these areas accommodate various levels of income and commercial rents.

But simply to list the factors without the examples and complicated dynamics found in the book is almost to miss the point.

"If you've read to the last chapter," she told me, "you know cities - their parks, transportation planning, development policy, density ratios … are, like the life sciences, problems of organized complexity. It's no good wishing it were any other way."

Thus, when I asked Random House's Jason Epstein whether the 50th anniversary might occasion not only a new edition but something more 21st-century - an interactive website or multimedia version - Ms. Jacobs' long-time editor said he feared it would be superficial.

"Jane's work is really a very subtle attempt to show how civilizations form, whether on the scale of neighbourhoods or eons. This would be hard to convey in a different format."

Hard, yes. But to ensure the afterlife of The Death and Life, someone will have to find a route to the "mixed use" of Ms. Jacobs's ideas. It's no good wishing it were any other way.

Veteran journalist Stephen Wickens is leading a Jane's Walk this weekend on the Danforth in Toronto.

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