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Jane Jacobs: Dark Age Ahead

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
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713
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20
Selections from an article in the Toronto Globe and Mail:


AFRAID OF THE DARK

Jane Jacobs has dedicated her career to bolstering the cities of North America. Now, however, Michael Valpy finds the world's leading urban philosopher distressed by 'ominous signs of decay.' At first glance, her new book, Dark Age Ahead: Caution, reads like a doomsday prophecy.


Less than a decade ago, Jane Jacobs, likely the world's most profound and prescient urban philosopher, was bubbling enthusiastically about the future of the human race, and only four years ago she told an interviewer: "I think I'm living in a marvellous age."

Today big black thunderclouds hover over her head. Her latest book, to appear next Saturday and scarily titled Dark Age Ahead: Caution, reads a lot like a doomsday prophecy for North American culture.

For chapter after chapter, an aroused Ms. Jacobs smacks her pointer against the five pillars that she says North American society depends on "to stand firm" but are now "in the process of becoming irrelevant."

These pillars are community and family, higher education, the effective practice of science and technology, self-policing by the professions and the application of taxes and other government powers to a society's needs and possibilities. And all are showing "ominous signs of decay," she warns.

"A culture is unsalvageable if stabilizing forces themselves become ruined. . . . I have written this cautionary book in hopeful expectations that time remains for corrective actions."

The nuclear family, Ms. Jacobs writes, has been rigged to fail by public policies that, unintentionally, force both parents to work to meet financial needs for themselves and their children. Families, she says, are forced into car-dependent suburbs, stripped of public supports through reduced services and provided fewer and fewer opportunities to get together and build a sense of community.

Universities now serve employers and act as colleges of heraldry, giving graduates a coat of arms to distinguish them from the underclass, but not educating them. They're credential factories, Ms. Jacobs says -- stripping the music, poetry, ethics, idealism and notion of the public good out of education.

Jane Jacobs has just turned 88. She was born on May 4, 1916, in Scranton, Pa. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961, now considered perhaps the most influential book about cities of the 20th century.

The image of the city Ms. Jacobs presented was organic, vibrant, as cluttered and magical as human life itself, and possessing a natural order. It was a stunning riposte to the devastation wrought across the United States by postwar urban renewal projects and the cancerous blight of expressways.

"It soon became obvious," she says, "that city planning had nothing to do with how cities worked successfully in real life." She found planners to be "intellectually moribund . . . There seemed to be almost no curiosity, except on the most superficial level, about how big cities work."

The foundation questions of her life's work have been "why some cities grow and why others stagnate and decay" -- questions that, for Ms. Jacobs, underlie virtually all inquiry into human advancement, Ryerson University economist Mark Lovewell says.

They have led her from examination of the street life and physical organization of cities to inquiring into their fiscal and regulatory governance and economic well-being and the nature of community, to an ever-broadening exploration of what makes creativity and innovation thrive and economies grow, and to what is the required moral and ethical framework that facilitates creativity and wealth.

Her thesis on new economic growth (that only in cities does entrepreneurial innovation get the optimum bang for the buck) has attracted new followers, such as Nobel economist Robert Lucas of the University of Chicago, Smart City guru and economist Richard Florida and influential Harvard urban economist Edward Glaeser.

"It's a new idea, this introduction of a dark age," Mr. Sewell says. "Cultures do fall into dark ages. Cultures can self-destruct. It happens all the time."

According to Ms. Jacobs, dark ages occur when cultures are confronted with such radical jolts that their fundamental institutions cannot adapt adequately. She considers the jolt that is whacking our time the most significant since the agrarian revolution sent the hunter-gatherer culture into oblivion 10,000 years ago.

Of course, the best-documented dark age swept Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire and lasted 600 years. The glories of Greco-Roman thought and accomplishment fell victim to cultural amnesia -- the very spectre now facing North America, she warns.

She does think we can get out of it.

Remedy for suburban sprawl: treat it as a first phase. Stop yelling about what already exists and, with a boost from demographics (all the suddenly old baby boomers, either with empty houses or looking for downsized shelter), adjust fiscal and other policies to encourage a second phase where suburbanites infill their backyards with new residential accommodation, invite shops and other commerce into the midst of their desiccated tracts and convert limited-access arterial roads into lively boulevards.

On the folly of assuming things will turn out all for the best:

Some people think optimistically that, if things get bad enough, they will get better because of the reaction of beneficent pendulum swings. . . . Corrective stabilization is one of the great services of democracy, with its feedback to rulers from the protesting and voting public. . . . But powerful persons and groups that find it in their interest to prevent adaptive corrections have many ways of thwarting self-organizing stabilizers.

On making things right:

Time for corrective action is finite: culture resides mainly in people's heads and in examples people set, and is subject therefore to natural mortality.

On cultural memory loss:

A couple of decades ago, it was common to hear residents remark . . . that they never used to need to lock their doors. Nowadays the remark is seldom heard. People who once didn't need to lock their doors have gradually died off, and so even the memory of what has been lost is now almost lost.
 
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ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
713
Points
20
"The most perfectly designed place can’t compete. Everything is provided, which is the worst thing we can provide. There’s a joke that the father of an old friend used to tell, about a preacher who warns children, ‘In Hell there will be wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth.’‘What if you don’t have teeth?’ one of the children asks. ‘Then teeth will be provided,’ he says sternly. That’s it—the spirit of the designed city: Teeth Will Be Provided for You.” --Jane Jacobs
 

The Irish One

Member
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2,267
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adjust fiscal and other policies to encourage a second phase where suburbanites infill their backyards with new residential accommodation
I've always had this corny fantasy that in the future zoning laws would be lax and suburban housing would have the option to develop their driveway or backyard, going as high as a three story house. :-$
 

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
713
Points
20
The Irish One said:
I've always had this corny fantasy that in the future zoning laws would be lax and suburban housing would have the option to develop their driveway or backyard, going as high as a three story house. :-$
Me too. At the risk of sounding immodest, what a great fantasy! You'd end up with something not too different from Venice's Lido: suburban but somewhat urban.

Suburban zoning is a load of crap.
 

Seabishop

Cyburbian
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3,838
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25
ablarc said:
Me too. At the risk of sounding immodest, what a great fantasy! You'd end up with something not too different from Venice's Lido: suburban but somewhat urban.
A lot depends on the general attractiveness of whats built. Raised ranches in back of raised ranches wouldn't look like Venice.

I've always wondered what would happen if you took an average suburban neighborhood and said "do what you want as long as its residential and meets code." Most would stay the same, some would build nice urban units, and some would wedge in crap.
 

ablarc

Cyburbian Emeritus
Messages
713
Points
20
Crap without Setbacks

"some would wedge in crap."

...to go with the crap that's already there.

At least it would be crap without setbacks.

Come to think of it, without setbacks it might not be crap.
 
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