Book Review: Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs

Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, editors. Random House Canada, 2016.

2016 marks the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ birth, and events across North America commemorate the legacy of the celebrated urbanist. Many will be familiar with the seminal book The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But that’s not all that Jacobs had to say.

Vital Little Plans, a remarkable compendium of Jacobs’ writing released this fall, covers a 69-year span, beginning well before the publication of Death and Life in 1961 and ending decades after. This long view reveals the power of an extraordinary intellect. Without disciplinary blinkers, Jane Jacobs’ intense curiosity pushed her to search high and low for previously unnoticed relationships and patterns, constantly testing, probing and ultimately producing powerful new insights about how cities generate wealth, create synergistic opportunities, and are compelled to solve problems through compression. Skilfully edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, the chronological collection shares Jacobs’ periodic reports from the field.

Of particular interest to Canadian readers will be Jacobs’ insights relative to her move from New York to Toronto as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War. In 1969, the Globe and Mail asked the newly minted Torontonian whether she found the city exciting enough. She replied that she found it hopeful and healthy, “unmangled” with options, but remained in much suspense as to what would come. This marked the beginning of an almost 40-year engagement. In 1984, she told an audience at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam about Canadian successes in integrating newcomers and making room for compound, multicultural identities.

Tracking the remarkable evolution of her adopted city became a passion that often caused Jacobs to venture into far-flung areas, away from the familiar neighbourhoods of the inner city. In a 1993 interview in The Idler, she clear-sightedly addressed aging: despite her physical limitations, she maintained an insatiable curiosity about how the world around her was shaping up. “My knees are creaky and my eyes aren’t as good, but on the whole I don’t resist getting older because I want to see how things turn out.”

Jane Jacobs holds up documentary evi-dence to contest the Lower Manhattan Expressway at a press conference in New York in 1961. Hil Stanziola for New York World Telegram
Jane Jacobs holds up documentary evi-dence to contest the Lower Manhattan Expressway at a press conference in New York in 1961. Hil Stanziola for New York World Telegram

Many of the ideas Jacobs explored were prescient of present situations, like the need for more creative stewardship of valuable city lands. Beginning in 1957, in a piece in Architectural Forum, she turned her attention to “surplus lands” and called for cities to be more resourceful in using derelict sites for new purposes. This foreshadowed infill development and transformational infrastructure projects, like the Bentway under Toronto’s Gardiner Expressway. She also anticipated the mounting problem of supporting the operation and maintenance of city systems. In 1964, she spoke to an audience at the White House about the growing gap between money to build things and money to run them—signalling the great maintenance deficit we are now painfully aware of in our transit systems, community facilities, utilities, schools and streets.

Vital Little Plans contains an immense repository of foundational wisdom that could help guide us in the future. In 1958, speaking at the New School in New York, Jacobs reflected on the influence of ideas we carry about the city. She pointed to the importance of “what is going on in people’s heads” and looked at how pernicious concepts (and good ones) shape cities—including the illogical continued onslaught on her Greenwich Village neighbourhood. She recalled her liberating realization as a young arrival in New York (from her hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania) that cities are “never finished”: an instrumental insight that would inform all of her subsequent work in battling overly prescriptive visions for perfect, complete cities. In this vein, in 1970, she outlined a more open-ended approach to zoning at an Earth Week Teach-In—a model based on performance criteria as opposed to rigid recipes for built form and land uses.

In 1967, Jacobs addressed the Royal Institute of British Architects on the patterns of “explosive growth” and displacement in cities, an observation that would be key to her later book The Economy of Cities. Critical problems, from pollution and transportation to poverty and disease, come to a head in cities, she asserted, and it is only in cities where they can be solved. In her new foreword to Death and Life from 1992, she argued that natural ecosystems are a parallel to city systems, in the way that both foster complex interdependencies. In a lecture from 2004, Jacobs insisted on the inherent unpredictability of city ecosystems, and the key concept of indeterminacy—insights that emerged from a lifetime of intense observation.

Following this sequence in Jacobs’ writings, talks and interviews, we see how, piece by piece, she constantly expanded the range of her thinking into the next ring of connected ideas, periodically consolidating her reflections into a book or an article. Over time, she edged ever closer to a unified theory linking ecology, economy, ethics and social mores with their manifestations in real places. Like her fundamental observation about the city itself, her work was never finished—opening ever more avenues of inquiry than it closed.

Ken Greenberg is an urban designer, teacher and writer. He was formerly Director of Urban Design and Architecture for the City of Toronto