A Heroine for Planners

I want to use this space to mourn the passing of someone who helped me decide to change careers. There are not many heroes in the field of urban planning. I have wondered why for a while. What heroes there are tend to be on the margins of the field. They are authors, or iconoclasts. Few work for a county devising zoning regs. One of those authors was Jane Jacobs, who passed away this week. She lived in New York and Toronto. She believed in density, but she argued that everything was best in moderation. She believed in functional cities with a tolerance for messiness. She liked alleys. She thought delivery trucks were the enzyme of skyscrapers. She hated the Vietnam War. She felt the same about our follies in Iraq.

Jane Jacobs never used regression. She never made maps or any kind of regulation. But she put into words the feelings that people had about their favorite places that were otherwise left unsaid. Why is it so pleasing to watch pedestrians? Why is it so lonely driving around at night in a suburb? If it takes a person to commit crime, why do we feel more safe in places with lots of people?

This reminds me about the degree to which planning reflects a belief in the power of environment. Planners see the will of nurture above the ability nature. They think that a person is very much a chameleon, capable of changing depending upon place.


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