100 Years of Jane Jacobs

A reflection on the work of Jane Jacobs in an excerpt from the book, Vital Little Plans, by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring.

Amilia Cervantes, December 2, 2016

Over the years, Jane Jacobs has played a major role in city building. Her life’s work and passion for urban living still influences the way we think of and observe cities today. Authors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring have encapsulated Jacobs’ legacy in the book Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs. This annotated work features forty short and previously unpublished pieces from throughout Jacobs’ career which highlight Jacobs’ ingenuity and impact over the years.

 As we approach the end of Jacobs’ centenary year let us take a moment to reflect on the ways in which her work has influenced Canadian cities over the last century in an excerpt from Vital Little Plans.


How Jane Jacobs has Shaped Canadian Cities


  1. Be yourself: Above all, Jacobs gave Canadian cities permission to be themselves. Many people in Toronto and elsewhere had come to similar conclusions on their own, but Jacobs’s writing and presence gave people the confidence and clout to pursue their own convictions.


  1. Diversity: At a time when many cities were still separating out their live, work and play uses, Toronto’s mixed-use 1976 Central Area Plan was a revelation. Jacobs’s defense of mixed-use neighbourhoods in The Death and Life of Great American Cities inspired planners to embrace diversity and liveliness in city planning.


  1. City living: Alongside the emergence of mixed-use planning, the middle-class flight to the suburbs also started to reverse. Jacobs’s account of the joys of city living in The Death and Life of Great American Cities reminded many people of what they were missing out on.


  1. Density: Jacobs also championed the importance of density, contradicting the conventional wisdom of the day that produced spread-out places like Toronto’s Regent Park. Vancouver planners embraced her prescriptions for density and diversity wholeheartedly, creating their own unique city typology called “Vancouverism,” which combines a human-scale retail and commercial podium at street level with tall, narrow residential towers above.


  1. Urban renewal: Jacobs and Toronto’s reform City Council also turned the idea of urban renewal in Canada on its head. Canada inherited the US approach of bulldozing entire neighbourhoods and replacing them with new, modern facilities. In the 1970s, however, Toronto began to pioneer an extensive program of “infill” urban renewal, adding housing into empty lots and back lanes with little or no destruction.


  1. Community process: One of Jacobs’s greatest contributions to city planning in general is the greater inclusion of city dwellers in the planning process. Toronto took this belief in participation to a new level in the reform years, incorporating citizen working groups into many decision-making processes, and even decentralizing the planning department into neighbourhood offices located in storefronts.


  1. Adaptive reuse: More and more, people are appreciating the value of old buildings. In the first half of the twentieth century, Victorian buildings were regularly destroyed to make way for shiny new construction. The Death and Life of Great American Cities showed readers the joy and wisdom of the existing urban fabric, and big wins like the preservation of St. Lawrence Market and Toronto City Hall, which Jacobs was involved in, helped turn the tide.


  1. Expressways: While the fight against the Spadina Expressway was already underway when Jacobs arrived in Toronto, her involvement in the campaign made it a cultural touchstone. It marked the beginning of the end of highway construction in the city, and mirrored highway revolts in other cities around North America.


  1. Local economies: More recently, Jacobs is becoming recognized for her emphasis on the importance of local economies. Although the influence is likely indirect, the local food movement, buy-local campaigns, and other similar trends reflect her ethos.


  1. Innovation: Likewise, encouraging innovation as a distinct economic activity is also gaining traction, as some cities try to build dense, mixed-use “innovation districts,” like Kitchener, ON. Although Jacobs’s final speech in Vital Little Plans, “The End of the Plantation Age,” expresses appreciation for the growing emphasis on human capital and innovation, she would probably have criticized the urge to formally corral or ordain it here and there, as well as the narrow focus on certain industries, like engineering, ICT, medicine, etc. Innovation often happens where we least expect it, in many humble and diverse ways.


Excerpted from Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring. Copyright © 2016 by The Estate of Jane Jacobs. Excerpted with permission from Random House Canada, an imprint of RH Canadian Publishing., a division of Penguin Random House of Canada Limited. All Rights Reserved. 

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