Celebrating Jane Jacobs: How Her Advocacy Inspired Us to Measure Character

By Mike Powe posted 05-10-2017 13:55


Until recently, preservationists may not have known much about urban activist Jane Jacobs or the value she placed on older buildings. But 11 years after her death, there is a renewed interest in cities that work for people, and Jacobs seems to be everywhere you look. From a new documentary, Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City; to “A Marvelous Order,” an upcoming opera pitting Jacobs against her nemesis Robert Moses; to Jane Jacobs Walks, touring conversations about urban neighborhoods, she is all the rage. But who was Jane Jacobs, and what does she have to do with historic preservation in cities?

May 4, 2017, would have been Jane Jacobs' 101st birthday. This quote is painted at an intersection in Toronto, Canada. | Credit: Image by RyanReady is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Formally a journalist, Jacobs was a quick-witted critic of 20th-century planning who understood cities as functioning organisms that relied on diversity and complexity. Neither a planner nor a preservationist by training, Jacobs nonetheless managed to change the practice of both fields, making observations that ring as true today as they did in the 1960s, when she was fighting to save her Greenwich Village neighborhood from the ever-expanding freeway system:

Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas need old buildings. Cities need old buildings so badly that it is probably impossible that vigorous streets and districts could grow without them.

In honor of what would have been Jacobs’ 101st birthday, here’s a look at how our “patron saint of planning” has influenced the work of the Preservation Green Lab and shaped ReUrbanism, the National Trust’s renewed focus on cities.

The Preservation Green Lab’s research has tested some of the core premises of Jacobs’ best-known book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Character Score, developed for Older, Smaller, Better and now a core element of the Atlas of ReUrbanism, draws directly on Jacobs’ writings. Character Score focuses on the presence of old buildings; a diverse mix of old and new buildings; and the presence of small, fine-grained buildings that foster small businesses, economic resilience, and neighborhood character. A recent “Strong Towns” blog post from Andrew Price makes a powerful argument for granularity, supporting our hypothesis that it is one of the greatest factors for strong and resilient communities.

Revisiting the ninth chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “The Need for Aged Buildings,” I’m struck by how much it says about the work of the Green Lab and about Character Score:

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. … Chain stores, chain restaurants, and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants, and pawn shops go into older buildings. … Hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

Regarding the need for a diverse, fine-grained mix of old and new buildings, Jacobs wrote:

Large swatches of construction built at one time are inherently inefficient for sheltering wide ranges of cultural, population, and business diversity.

Her writing evokes a very powerful image of the kinds of blocks that we now advocate for to support thriving streets and of the potential that exists in older corridors that need reinvestment and renewed interest. Our goal in developing the Character Score was to identify the potential and opportunity that those same images evoke. We have since used it in much of our analysis, from the Partnership for Building Reuse to the Atlas of ReUrbanism.

Jane Jacobs continues to inspire people addressing local issues within cities and towns across the country. Her successful fight against the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway (LOMEX) remains relevant as communities struggle to retain affordable housing and legacy businesses across the country. She showed a generation of activists that you don’t have to be formally trained to have a seat at the table.


Inspired by Jane Jacobs’ ideas and tenacity, the National Trust is taking on the challenges of 21st-century cities like Louisville, Kentucky, and spotlighting the value of cities’ older buildings. | Credit: Andy Snow/National Trust for Historic Preservation

Today some of that tenacity is captured in the National Trust’s ReUrbanism work. We’ve set an ambitious goal of making building reuse the default option and demolition the option of last resort, and we’re working city by city to bring about real, positive change to that end. Whether by addressing community concerns about proposed massive upzones in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood; demonstrating the value of older, smaller buildings and arguing for better preservation and reuse policies in Louisville, Kentucky; or bringing our own analysis to mayors and city councils, we are fighting to show why we must not forget “the need for aged buildings.” We aim to do Jacobs’ legacy proud.

Read More about Jane Jacobs on SavingPlaces.org

Mike Powe is the director of research for the Preservation Green Lab. 

#PreservationGreenLab #Sustainability #ReUrbanism

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