FEBRUARY 14, 2017
I READ MOST of Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs while riding the bus in Los Angeles. It was a fitting backdrop for Jacobs’s observations on the “physical-economic-ethical processes” that comprise a city. I would pause my reading to watch the theater of messy human interactions — tragic, generous, exhausted — inside the bus as we glided, or more often inched, by large malls based on European plazas and blank hillside homes with empty sidewalks.
In this recently published book of Jacobs’s short writings and lectures, collected together for the first time and edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, we witness a remarkable mind tackle the problems of comprehending and improving the urban sphere. The continued excavation and publication of Jacobs’s writings is a welcome boon. While many of her ideas have now become conventional wisdom in urbanist circles, gathered under the umbrella term of “livability,” the strength, wit, and style of her language endures. Vital Little Plans gathers an excellent range of Jacobs’s thinking for both new readers and those who haven’t picked her up since being assigned The Death and Life of Great American Cities in college. Her writing is about so much more than contempt of suburbs and expressways. These short essays and lectures present a startling breadth of ideas, and an unflagging advocacy not just for the built environment, but for the human struggles within it.
Jacobs was an autodidactic polymath, a self-taught expert in everything from economic theory and the history of human civilization to construction codes. Her little-known first book, written at 25, was Constitutional Chaff, an analytical catalog of line-by-line alternate proposals made for the US Constitution in 1787. The book she was working on when she died, at the age of 90, was tentatively, if confidently, titled A Short Biography of the Human Race. Though she is known as an urbanist, cities were, in many ways, merely a framework that enabled Jacobs to pursue her interest in everything: democracy, law, philosophy, capitalism, ethics, and our species, the future of which she clearly saw taking place in urban locations. In 1984, in a speech she delivered in Amsterdam called “The Responsibilities of Cities,” she stated that “[t]he nation serves as protector, but cities serve as the creators of so much that a nation protects.”
Jacobs never finished college, nor did she formally study architecture or urban design. (Later, she turned down honorary degrees from 30 institutions.) She was instead able to analyze what worked, and didn’t, through what may seem like a simple method: a keen observation of urban life. She called her walks around the city “unexpected treasure hunts.” In a 1956 article in Architectural Forum, where she was an editor, she celebrates “the pavement-pounding city planner” who has a “fascination, on an intimate level, with all details of city life and city relationships, of his consuming curiosity about the way the city develops and changes, of his endless preoccupation with the living city, and — at the bottom of it all — of his affection for the city.”
She could have been describing herself. This everyday closeness to her subject, as well as her natural eye for detail, gave Jacobs the ability to pit the experiences of average citizens against the orthodoxy and distance of larger powers, be they academic or civic. As she put it, in a statement that still raises hackles in some circles, “It’s good to have statistics, but I think anecdotal evidence is often sharper and truer.”
Jacobs’s interests in such evidence can be seen in her first published articles, included in this book, written for Vogue magazine at the height of the Depression. These pleasurable vignettes exploring the fur, leather, diamond, and flower industries of Manhattan were meant to appeal to the aspiring luxury consumer. In the young Jacobs’s hands, however, they became finely wrought portraits of how these unique cultural and economic systems set their own rhythms and logics. Of the wholesale flower markets, she writes: “Flower buyers and sellers began to drift in there to conclude their dickering, until finally they used it to house a fairly well-organized market. The first rule adopted was that no one could take the cover off his basket until a gong rang at six o’clock.” Her attention to the diverse, smaller economies that keep a city thriving with their “intricate sidewalk ballet” was to become a major theme throughout her more mature work.
In the parts of Vital Little Plans that focus on city planning in the 1950s and ’60s, one can’t avoid somberly noting the similarities and differences to our own era. Almost 60 years ago she was arguing for removing cars from the streets, an idea that has gained visibility in Los Angeles just in the past decade. Likewise, Jacobs’s call, in the early 1960s, for safer crosswalks, widened sidewalks, more shade trees, and pedestrian niches is slowly transforming discrete blocks here.
Jacobs was no fan of Los Angeles, which she viewed as traveling in the exact opposite direction as her preferences. In 1969, for The Globe and Mail, she wrote a screed against a proposed expressway in Toronto, where her family had resettled in protest of the Vietnam War draft. In it, she used Los Angeles as a foreboding “lesson,” citing its choked freeways, smog, and barren parking lots. (Her disapproval had developed long before the article. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written eight years earlier, she reproached Los Angeles repeatedly for its “pseudosuburbs” and lack of public life.)
The vastness and interdisciplinarity of Jacobs’s thinking — which soars especially in the later essays and lectures collected in this book — stands out in a media landscape where “successful urban renewal” can be distilled into a million signifying images of a heart drawn in latte foam. (“Insufferably quaint,” we can imagine her saying.) It’s rare now for scholars of urban life to pursue the kind of meandering threads of interest that Jacobs permitted herself, and which are so essential for representing the intricately layered life of a city. As she writes in a draft of her final book, a portion of which is reproduced in Vital Little Plans, “we need unlimited independent thinkers with unlimited skepticism and curiosity.” That’s as true now as it ever was, and maybe more so.