Skip to Main Content

May 02, 2022

Is Jane Jacobs still our guide?

Is Jane Jacobs still our guide?
Jane Jacob’s Day is around the corner.

Each year in May, walking tours are organized around the world in honour of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), a writer, urbanist, and activist, who championed the voices of everyday people in neighbourhood planning and city-building. In 1961, Jane also published The Death and Life of Great American Cities which has become a major inspiration for city planning in the past half century.

This month, as you take part in walking tours and dig out her well-thumbed book, ask yourself a critical question: what is her legacy for today’s professional planners?

I would say that her legacy is an inspiration… and a caution.

Jane taught us to look. To walk a city and understand it through your eyes and feet, to see what’s really going on. She had the benefit, unique among contemporary planners, of no formal education, with no mess of theory or good practice to screen her eyes. She saw the city as it really was.

Typically interpreted as someone who emphasized small, diverse interventions – a precursor of the 15-minute city – her later books brought a focus on urban wealth creation as the essential determinant of city success, a perspective now largely absent from planning thinking. She had some crazy ideas – every city should have its own currency! – but some that might come back into fashion, like the need for import substitution to foster urban self-reliance by decreasing dependency on goods imported from other countries.

Jane’s ideas about what made a good city, once so revolutionary and progressive, have steadily morphed into a reactionary carapace.

The “small is best” mindset, the fussy obduracy of plans and zoning, the inherent power imbalance of public participation, promiscuous heritage designation, the pervasive suspicion of bold initiatives – all can trace their source to Death and Life. Is it fair to blame this on Jane? Not entirely.

Jane liked people who did things, built buildings, created businesses, had vigorous conversations on the sidewalk. Jane wasn’t a progressive, knowing what people needed. She was essentially a libertarian, who liked the market economy, creating imagination and opportunities in cities.

But Jane also transmitted her dislike for Robert Moses-style large, city-changing moves. Robert Moses (1888-1981) was a U.S. state and municipal official whose career in public works planning resulted in a virtual transformation of the New York landscape. He used his mastery of municipal finance to build some 700 urban parks and tens of thousands of affordable housing units, and his projects greatly influenced large-scale planning in other cities in the United States.

But then there were the expressways. If Robert had been a transit builder – he was a few decades too early – he’d be the planning hero not the cartoon villain of the century. He knew how to get things done. Sometimes it feels like planners can’t get anything done. Ever more regulation requires ever more planners to unscramble this tangled web.

In a later, rather strange book called Systems of Survival, published in 1992, Jane explored the ideas that should now increasingly be the focus of city planners’ attention: how do we move beyond regulation as our primary operating mode?

Jane saw those involved in city building as being governed by two essential moral precepts: the Guardian Syndrome and the Commerce Syndrome, very roughly the public and private sector mindsets, each with their distinctive yet essential cultures and values. True urban success requires a creative collision, a robust synthesis of the two. It’s a fascinating checklist.
   Jane Jacobs – ‘Systems of Survival’
Moral Precepts
Guardian Syndrome Commerce Syndrome
  • Shun trading
  • Exert prowess
  • Be obedient and disciplined
  • Adhere to tradition
  • Respect hierarchy
  • Be loyal
  • Take vengeance
  • Deceive for the sake of the task
  • Make rich use of leisure
  • Be ostentatious
  • Dispense largesse
  • Be exclusive
  • Show fortitude
  • Be fatalistic
  • Treasure honor
  • Shun force
  • Compete
  • Be efficient
  • Be open to inventiveness and novelty
  • Use initiative and enterprise
  • Come to voluntary agreements
  • Respect contracts
  • Dissent for the sake of the task
  • Be industrious
  • Be thrifty
  • Invest for productive purposes
  • Collaborate easily with strangers and aliens
  • Promote comfort and convenience
  • Be optimistic
  • Be honest

In Systems of Survival, the book was written in the form of a dinner party set in New York City to explore these syndromes. She didn’t set it in Toronto, where she had lived the last 40 years of her life, because I think she wasn’t sure we could have a sufficiently raucous, dramatically compelling debate. Time for all us planners to do a self-evaluation and prove her wrong. She would love it!

The views expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s), and may not reflect the position of the Ontario Professional Planners Institute.

Post by Joe Berridge, RPP

Recent Posts