When Jane Jacobs died last spring, many urbanists were surprised by the breadth and depth of the media coverage that followed. Her work was subjected to the kind of widespread attention it hadn’t received in decades; many people were compelled to read or re-read her classics, especially The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But what now? As Lisa Rochon wrote in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, little has been done in Canada — her home for nearly four decades — to ensure that her ideas will continue to make a difference in the years to come. Unlike some other architecture critics (or should I say starchitecture groupies), Rochon has always recognized the power of Jacobs’ work. It comes as no surprise, then, that she has compiled a pretty solid list of ways in which Jacobs could be memorialized.
In her piece “Time to think big about Jane,” Rochon writes:
Best not to contemplate naming a building after Jacobs. Her name could be used to raise the profile of a slightly wonky institution or soften the blow of an ordinary design. “She felt that getting things named after you was a double-edged sword,” her son, Jim Jacobs, says from his home in Toronto. “Better to have your name on a book and if it was no good, then that was your own fault.”
Given Jacobs’s work to stop the Spadina Expressway, some have considered naming the new Lake Shore Boulevard after Jacobs if, in fact, the Gardiner Expressway comes down. “That would be terrible,” Jim Jacobs protests. “Jane thought that the Gardiner should not be replaced with any kind of big boulevard when it came down. She had observed that when you put up a new highway, it takes months to fill up with traffic. If you did the process in reverse, and shut down each lane one by one, the traffic would go elsewhere.”
To be sure, a physical memorial — after a war, a natural disaster or the death of a great cultural hero such as Glenn Gould — helps people remember. The problem is that it limits Jane to one neighbourhood, whereas her ideas spread from her stoop in the Annex to the world. I prefer the idea of a travelling marketplace, or naming an annual Jane Jacobs Day in which children of all ages are taught some of the fundamentals of her thinking.
Rather than a bench or a fountain or a park named in her honour, I would hope that the city might sit down with urban visionaries and Jacobs’s family and friends to hammer out a way to keep her ideas alive. Though a Jane Jacobs annual prize for individuals was started in 1997, a new award could be inaugurated for specific grassroots projects from anywhere across the country or, indeed, the world. Or there could be a memorial fund to help one small slice of the urban fringe find a sense of community. Or maybe funds in the name of Jane Jacobs could be donated by the city to start building bread-baking ovens in many parks, just as Jutta Mason, a Jane Jacobs Prize past recipient, managed remarkably for Dufferin Grove Park.
What matters is an initiative that helps us to carry on learning from Jacobs — to allow us to plunge back into her texts. A centre dedicated to her ideas and community activism could do that. A centre for urban ecology is an idea being seriously floated by her long-time friends and colleagues Margie Zeidler and Mary Rowe. Watch for it: The centre could be a fitting and natural extension of Jacobs’s work.
What can I say? She’s right.
Tags: Jane Jacobs, Urban Design, Urban Planning