04 May 2016

Happy 100th Birthday, Jane Jacobs!

In general, what is good for pedestrians is good for cyclists--in urban areas, anyway.

Or, to put it another way, cities that are good for cycling are also usually good for walking.  Such cities usually have stores, services and other amenities that most people can reach without having to drive:  food stores, theatres, doctors' offices, floral shops, schools and book stores are accessible by bike, foot or mass transportation. 

While said retail establishments might include large supermarkets or department stores, they aren't the only options.  Stores in the kind of neighborhood I have just described often specialize in some thing or another, whether it's fruits and vegetables (possibly organic), hardware or housewares, biographies or practical bicycles:  the sorts of things that still often aren't available from big-box stores or online retailers.

Such communities also foster diversity, whether in gender identity and expression, race, ethnicity, income levels, cultural practices or education--in theory, anyway.

By "in theory", I mean in the world Jane Jacobs described in The Death and Life of Great American CitiesWhen it was published in 1961, New York's Penn Station was about to fall to the wrecking ball, only to be replaced with a grim, cramped public space that shares only the name and ostensible function of its predecessor.  And, at that time, American metropolises, as well as some cities in other parts of the world, were doing everything they could to follow the vision of planner Robert Moses-- who envisioned cities that were vehicles, if you will, for the automobile (If he'd had his way, downtown neighborhoods like Greenwich Village, Soho and Little Italy would have been bulldozed for an expressway that would have torn through lower Manhattan from the Brooklyn and Williamsburg Bridges in the east to the Holland Tunnel in the west)--and of Le Corbusier, the Swiss-French architect who called for bulldozing downtowns to build skyscrapers interspersed with parks.

Both Moses and Le Corbusier saw traditional neighborhoods as vestiges of the past that impeded progress.  A street, in the words of Corbusier, was  a "relic of the centuries, a dislocated organ that can no longer function".  While people-watching could be fun, it could not compare, he said, with "the joy that architecture provokes".

Now, I like architecture as much as anybody does, if I say so myself.  But a necropolis of towers directs the eye away from the street, and a monochromatic cityscape can only deaden the senses.  I can't help but to think that adding more drivers to such a scenario wouldn't make a city safer, let alone more pleasant, for pedestrians--or cyclists.

While Ms. Jacobs' work has had unintended consequences--She saved the Village and Soho, but who can afford to live in them anymore?--there is little doubt that she has made life better for those of us who ride in large cities.  For that, we owe her a debt of gratitude.

She, who would have been 100 years old today, died in 2006.  Needless to say, her legacy lives.

I should mention that she was a cyclist:  She was often seen pedaling the streets of the Village and, later, Toronto.  Are you surprised?


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