A “Jane Jacobs Walk” for Iowa City

[Note:A slightly different version of this short piece can be found at: Jim Throgmorton, “Look at city neighborhoods through Jane Jacobs’ eyes,” Iowa City Press-Citizen (April 30, 2012), 7A.]

I have the good fortune of being the Iowa City Council’s representative on the UNESCO City of Literature’s Board of Directors. Not only does this give me an opportunity to speak on behalf of the great writing done in our town, but it also enables me to advocate a view I’ve been promoting for many years, namely, that there is a powerful connection between storytelling and physical design, and that many a great writer has never written a single novel, poem, short story or play.

Which brings me to Jane Jacobs. Jacobs, who died at the age of 89 in 2006 was an urbanist and activist who championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building. As a community organizer in 1960s New York City, she helped save her neighborhoods from destruction at the hands of Robert Moses (“The man who built New York”) and other outside interests. As an author she invited her readers to explore city neighborhoods, and to learn through direct experience how cities actually work. To really understand cities, she wrote, “you’ve got to get out and walk.”

As an author Jacobs gave the world The Death and Life of Great American Cities, perhaps the most influential book ever written about urban planning and development in the U.S. She also wrote four compelling books about the role of cities in economic development: The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Systems of Survival, and The Nature of Economies, plus a worried but hopeful finale titled Dark Age Ahead.

Death and Life eloquently critiqued of city planning as practiced around 1960, especially its heavy reliance on slum clearance, urban renewal, expressways that cut through neighborhoods, zoning that segregated cities into large single-purpose districts, and the “Great Blight of Dullness” it produced. With a remarkable eye for detail, Jacobs wrote about “common, ordinary things,” called for “eyes upon the street,” stressed the importance of “informal public life:” and the value of “public characters,” and praised the “intricate ballet” of social interaction found in older, diverse neighborhoods.

On first glance, her later books seem to mark a dramatic departure from Death and Life. But there are strong similarities. In these books as in Death and Life, she rejected dogma and reasoned her way to unexpected and potentially transformative insights. Moreover, she argued that the built form advocated in Death and Life (short blocks, mixed uses, old buildings mingled with new, and sufficient residential density) facilitates the kind of economic development that creates great cities.

So, what do Jane Jacobs and her books have to do with Iowa City?

I invite you to discover answers to this question by taking part in a “Jane Jacobs Walk” on Saturday, May 5, from 3 to 5 p.m. We will begin on the Ped Mall at the corner of Washington and Dubuque Streets, and then walk south along Clinton to the old train depot, at which point we’ll walk back toward downtown by way of Gilbert and Linn Streets.

The area we’ll be exploring has changed substantially over the past ten years and will do so even more over the coming years. Knowing that the future of the neighborhood remains open, walkers will be encouraged to see its present and planned future through Jane Jacobs’ eyes, and to suggest creative alternatives that would make it into an even more attractive, diverse, and livable place.

Our “Jane Jacobs Walk” is being co-sponsored by the City of Iowa City, the U of Iowa’s School of Urban and Regional Planning, the UNESCO City of Literature, and The Center for the Living City. For details, take a look at: http://www.facebook.com/JanesWalkIowaCity.

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