I rarely, if ever, say that Jane Jacobs would have said this or that about things that she did not comment on and, of course, can no longer comment on, because it is unfair to put words in the mouths of those who can no longer speak for themselves. That said, I think Geoff Olson’s commentary, general though it is, is consistent with Jane’s views and approach.
In conversations that I had with Jane in the last decade of her life she said that she wasn’t opposed to residential highrises in principle, but thought they needed to be designed and placed with care and sensitivity to their surroundings (as they were in the West End until recently), and that there are many neighbourhoods and even entire cities that manage just fine without highrise buildings.
One small error in Olson’s column: the title of Jane’s 1961 classic is The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jane reversed the cliché “life and death” because she was optimistic that if the principles she advocated were adopted, America’s dying or threatened cities and neighbourhoods could be revitalized and the still-thriving ones protected. Ten years ago Jane told me that she was gratified that where these principles were being sensibly applied—as in Vancouver—this was indeed the case.
On the occasions that Jane visited Vancouver she experienced and enjoyed many of our neighbourhoods. She said that she felt quite at home in mine, Riley Park, and that she thought it functioned very well despite the relatively low population density. She thought the choices for “new housing types” that residents had made for the Riley Park/South Cambie Community Vision seemed sensible and she applauded the CityPlan concept and planning process (although she disliked the term “vision” because of its utopian overtones).
Jane deplored errant wastefulness in the name of “progress”, such as is increasingly occurring throughout Vancouver, and thought that no community or place should be treated as if it were a “blank slate”, which I think we are also seeing to a great extent—the Little Mountain quagmire and Cambie Corridor policy to demolish the Marine Gardens housing complex and replace it with towers are cases in point. In1998 Jane toured the historic and affordable Mole Hill, which the city was planning to demolish for condominiums and an unneeded park expansion. Her strong statement of support for the Mole Hill tenants, who had been fighting for years to save their homes and gardens, contributed to their victory, which followed soon after.
Jane Jacobs’ books continue to be read, and continue to help inform us about the present as well as the past; but it is up to us, the living, to use our own eyes and ears to evaluate what is working well and what isn’t, and apply her highly nuanced ideas and observations in ways that seem appropriate to serving our present needs and are also likely to benefit future generations. Jane felt that both of these objectives could and should be achieved. Based on decades of personal involvement and research she also concluded that incorporating the local knowledge of residents and business proprietors, and obtaining their support for constructive change, are not only feasible but crucial for successful community planning.