Saturday, August 13, 2011

Book Review: What We See

Released last summer, What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs is a collection of dozens of essays ranging from architecture to economics, planning to activism. Edited by Stephen Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth, notable contributors include Copenhagen-based urban planner Jan Gehl, former mayor of Curitiba Jaime Lerner, writer and NYC Landmarks Preservation Commissioner Roberta Brandes Gratz, NYC Department of Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Kahn, and many more illustrious names with impressive CV's. 

The essays do not follow any apparent set guidelines, just general themes, and some are written rather personally, others more like a research paper. Some of the writers knew Jane Jacobs personally, whereas many didn't and may only refer to her in passing. Regardless, the depth of topics covered makes this a great read for anyone with an interest in Jane Jacobs and her several decades of writing. Although she may be best known for The Life and Death of Great American Cities, most of her later work was concerned with economics and social issues and the full breadth of these interests can be found in What We See.

It's difficult to review a collection of essays, each being very different from the next, so instead I have decided to feature several quotes from the book, and elaborate on them. The quotes are by no means the only ones I found worthwhile, but rather ones that gave me something to think about.

Michael Sorkin discussing sociologist Henri Lefebvre

"His argument for a shared "right to the city"... insisted that this right must include the empowerment of citizens to work toward the city of their own dreams and fantasies... "

A city of dreams and fantasies is not something modern politicians, and even most planners, strive for anymore, which is a real shame. True visions have been lost in a capitalist world where profit reigns supreme, above all other pursuits. Now, I'm not particularly religious, but it seems rather evident that our secular society fails to build beautiful built environments precisely because there is no one to honor, whether spiritual or material. We just live, and build just enough to house ourselves, but not to enrich our daily lives. I don't expect religion to play a significant part in Western society anytime soon, so where does that leave us? How can we once again, by default, build beautiful cities? At the very least to be given a choice between an urban or suburban lifestyle, a life with or without cars, anonymous or social.

Stephen Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth

"Jacobs was determined to see the truth. She held a bright torch to everything she observed... "

"... favored insertion of the good and warned against damage caused in excising the bad: "It's not so much a matter of taking out bad things as sensitively adding in good things." She exhorted city fathers not to study the causes of poverty, but rather to apply their minds to the causes of prosperity, poverty being simply the absence of prosperity, as darkness is the absence of light... "

I find this really profound, and extremely rare in our society. When expressed so openly by Jane Jacobs, however, it's almost self-evident. She had a knack for stating the obvious in ways no one had thought of before. To me this philosophy explains why actions such as charity have always felt so foreign, working to prop up the lowest denominator rather than working from the top down. When seen in this light, the so-called "charity" of billionaire "philanthropists" such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet are especially perverse, they being among the few members of society with the access to enact real change, to grow true prosperity, but instead they preserve the status quo.

Rob Cowan

"... we observe in order to understand. Only when we understand can we hope to shape the world around us for the better.The Scottish pioneer planner, sociologist, and biologist Patrick Geddes wrote in 1905: "A city is more than a place in space, it is drama in time." That insight was forgotten for a few decades as professions... emerged to compete for the dominant role in remaking cities, and their members failed to see the narrowness of their particular perspectives."

"In today's professionlized world, we need all the inspiration we can get... to help us learn the fine arts of seeing."

I found this essay by Rob Cowan, a London-based urban designer, to be among the most interesting and relevant to me. I think he truly understands the issues facing those architects and urban designers with a passion for creating high quality streets and cities. To walk our streets and be humbled by the accomplishments of the past is a gratifying experience, but not particularly encouraged in architecture schools throughout the world, which still cling on to modernist arrogance of ignoring the past altogether. Maybe if architects and urban designer spent a little more time trying to understand the accomplishments of the past they would be better equipped to design a better future. In my walks throughout London and Europe over the past few years, I would always ask myself "what do I like, what don't I? What works and what doesn't?" I've recorded these walks with thousands of photographs over the years. Not even the best education can teach one about "the ballet of the sidewalks", as Jacobs used to say, only a thoughtful eye and will to learn can do that.

Jaime Lerner

"... a certain sense of urgency is vital to the transformation of our cities. The idea that action should only be taken after all the answers and the resources have been found is a sure recipe for paralysis."

If everything had to be in place before anyone ever did anything, very little indeed would be accomplished. Among startup businesses very few start with the resources they need but accomplishments are made through sheer dedication and perseverance. Taking risks is the cornerstone of almost all new achievements, which rarely coincides with all the numbers lining up. Tackling the challenges of the the 21st century street is much more about the passion to take steps, even unusual ones, than it is on relying on traffic engineers. Jaime Lerner faced a lot of naysayers when he wanted to reform public transport in Curitiba, and it was his conviction that got him through. He knew if he sought the support of local businesses, the cost of the project would soar and very likely the whole project collapse through lack of consensus. Sometimes bold steps need to be taken even in the face of adversary. Let's just hope those taking the steps are like Mr. Lerner, with the aim to do good, rather than like Robert Moses and his path of destruction.

Janine Benyus

"... the fastest way to change is for societies to change what it is they compare themselves to, what it is they admire."

It is often said that architecture and design reflect the spirit of the age, or zeitgeist, which explains the disappointing built environment we see springing up around us. Values which influence architecture, such as fashion, ethics, consumerism, politics, and environmental stewardship, are all poor or worse in today's society, so little wonder that beautiful new streets are very rarely built. Values which our culture pays heed to are not those which result in beautiful architecture and cities. There's scarce appreciation for aesthetics anywhere in the mainstream. Unfortunately, even once the will is there for a change of direction, this is not something that will change anytime soon, for just as it took decades to arrive where we are now, it will take decades to get out. And perhaps once again build, by default, beautiful streets and delightful towns and cities which capture the soul and are a joy to walk among.

I had thought this would be one of my shortest reviews but instead it's the longest. This book is a great read for anyone with a passing interest in Jane Jacobs and her work on cities, economics, and culture. Through the dedication of her friends and colleagues around the world, I have no doubt her legacy will continue to shape our world in the years to come.

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