Homage to Jane

Jane Jacobs
American-born Canadian social and urban activist & author Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006), with a sign around her neck that reads ‘Conscience is the Ultimate Weapon,’ attends a boycott at Public School (P.S. 41) (at 116 West 11th Street), New York, New York, February 3, 1964. (Photo by Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images)

I don’t remember precisely when I encountered Jane. I would have been an impressionable young hippie at the time. Many of those youthful impressions have faded, but not those from The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, which I first read at some point in the late 1960’s. As a young ecologist I had not given urban planning a second thought, until I read Jacobs’ book. It was a revelation. She showed me that cities function like living organisms, and that urban planning is the reciprocal, or the flip side, of ecology. Her precepts of mixed use, low rise, high density and pedestrian orientation spoke strongly to me, even as a country boy. In my visits to various cities, both in Canada and the US, I naturally gravitated to the neighborhoods that demonstrated those characteristics. That was where I found used bookstores, inexpensive ethnic restaurants, experimental theater and shoe repair. 

We lived for several years in Nelson, BC, a former mining town pasted on a steep mountainside. Nelson has one of the most vibrant and viable main streets of any small town in North America, not because of enlightened urban planning, but because there is simply no room for sprawl. No spaghetti suburbs, no soulless suburban shopping malls. In contrast, the towns in the Okanagan where we live now are on much gentler terrain, and suburban sprawl is the order of the day. Every town, from Osoyoos right through to Armstrong, is busy expanding its footprint. Kelowna, our flagship city, is busy trashing another Jacobs precept, with its downtown high-rise apartments and office towers. 

If you think of it, mixed use, low rise, high density and pedestrian orientation are very similar to ecological principles. In spite of our suburbs, freeways and glass towers we are animals, after all.

Jane Jacobs had no professional credentials as an urban planner, yet she took on the New York establishment and won several key battles that preserved neighborhood life in that city. She and her family moved to Canada in the late Sixties, in opposition to the Vietnam War. We can be proud of that.

We Canadians need another Jane Jacobs, someone who slices through all the self-serving urban planning and developer bafflegab. I do recall a resonant advertising slogan for an upscale housing development on the far outskirts of Kelowna: “Close to Nature, Minutes From Downtown.” That is a totally wrong-headed and unachievable urban dream, yet somehow we delude ourselves and buy into it. 

Our Okanagan towns and cities are stuck in a kind of frontier/capitalist mentality, but I am sensing the very beginnings of a tectonic shift, amplified by climate change concerns. Somewhere out there is a young urbanist revolutionary who will write The Death and Life of BC Interior Towns and Cities. I eagerly await that book.

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