Jane Jacobs and the Cities
By Adam Cook
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is an enthralling new documentary with a classic David Vs. Goliath story at its core. You may be familiar with Jane Jacobs, the civil hero who had a far-reaching influence on city planning and civic consciousness. Her vision of communal and functional urban space, which revolved around creating dense neighbourhoods with mixed-use developments that would bring people together instead of driving them apart in Metropolitan settings. Declared the “mother of Vancouverism” (protecting “view corridors”, walkability, density, mixed-use spaces), she is particularly known in Canada for having a significant impact on our own city’s planning as well as Toronto’s, where she would reside for much of her life after moving away from New York where she fought her most famous battles. It was there that she opposed the Spadina Expressway that would have destroyed now flourishing neighbourhoods.
Her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a bold strike against the rapid urbanization that had transformed cities to the benefit of deep pocketed money men and large businesses. Power broker Robert Moses became her main adversary as she actively fought against his proposal for developments involving superhighways and demolishing low income neighborhoods to do so. She fought like hell to save parks like Washington Square Park and countless historic buildings that would’ve met their demise. Perhaps there’s even an almost poetic element to how Jacobs envisioned how city neighbourhoods can function not just as practical spaces but expressive environments that are inherently communal and intersectional. Filmmaker-journalist Matt Tyrnauer takes a detailed look at Jacobs’ concepts and the heated years-long fight with the ruthless Moses.
Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is one of those rare true stories where the vision and determination of an individual had a tremendous effect on society that is still reflected today. It’s an important time to reflect on urban issues, and how we see the future of our cities, in terms of sustainability and growth. We would do well to to keep Jacobs’ ideas alive as our cities begin to change even more rapidly and threaten to dispel the lower middle class and further alienate classes from one another in our Late-Capitalist landscape. Battle for the City serves well as inspiration for what is possible with developing urban space and more importantly how The Powers That Be don’t always have the final say.