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What We See: Advancing the Observations of…
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What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

by Stephen A. Goldsmith

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This book may of limited use to anyone who hasn't read Jane Jacob's Death and Life of Great American Cities. To anyone who has, it's interesting in two dimensions: for the substantive responses to Jacob's ideas offered by various contributors; and as an artifact, a mark of how the ideas of a truly insightful, idiosyncratic thinker can be absorbed, misunderstood, tamed, or simply ignored in the next one or two generations. The place to start this collection is with the epilogue, Mary Rowe, 'Jane's Cup of Tea', which describes Jacob's intellectual personality - pragmatic, playful, inductive, and sharply critical of fuzzy thinking while also being personally generous: "She was a fierce intellect, but not a predictable one. One of the infuriating ways in which some of those who valued her work have coped with her death...has been to invoke a kitschy adaptation from the evangelical movement, and propose it as a useful question: What Would Jane Say? Well, one of the most salient attributes of Jane Jacobs is that you never had a clue what Jane might say, or how she might say it." (311). This piece is probably one of the few in the book worth reading before picking up Death and Life, or any of Jacobs' other works.

Not surprisingly, the essays in this collection are uneven; they also engage with Jacobs' thought in wildly disparate ways. Some essentially don't; the authors draw some commonplace observation from Jacobs - that cities have emergent properties (Sanford Ikeda, 'The Mirage of the Efficient City') or are not efficient in conventional neoclassical economic terms (Nabeel Hamdi, 'The Intelligence of Informality'), but it's clear that these authors are keying less off Jacobs than other recent writers and thinkers. Ray Suarez, 'Jane Jacobs and the Battle for the Street', essentially reiterates a couple themes from Death and Life with less verve. Other authors play off of Jacobs' themes with lyric descriptions of streets or architectural design or processes of community involvement. The sixth section of the book consists of economic essays responding to Jacobs' favorite work, her lesser-known The Economy of Cities. These four essays are distinctly alternative in tone; Pierre Desrochers and Samuel Leppala, 'Rethinking Jacobs Spillovers', discuss her inadequate reception among more mainstream economists, but it would have been nice to read a more critical evaluation by a mainstream urban economist.

The essays I found most stimulating are: Arlene Goldbard, 'Nine Ways of Looking at Ourselves (Looking at Cities)', which uses Jacobs' works to illustrate useful habits of thought; Kenneth Greenberg, 'The Interconnectedness of Things', on Jacobs' influence in Toronto; Janine Benyus, 'Recognizing What Works', on biomimicry; and the epilogue by Mary Rowe, quoted above. ( )
  bezoar44 | Feb 19, 2013 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 098155931X, Hardcover)

A timely revisitation of renowned urbanist-activist Jane Jacobs' lifework, What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs invites thirty pundits and practitioners across fields to refresh Jacobs' economic, social and urban planning theories for the present day. Combining personal and professional observations with meditations on Jacobs' insights, essayists bring their diverse experience to bear to sketch the blueprints for the living city.

The book models itself after Jacobs' collaborative approach to city and community building, asking community members and niche specialists to share their knowledge with a broader community, to work together toward a common goal of building the 21st century city.

The resulting collection of original essays expounds and expands Jacobs' ideas on the qualities of a vibrant, robust urban area. It offers the generalist, the activist, and the urban planner practical examples of the benefits of planning that encourages community participation, pedestrianism, diversity, environmental responsibility and self-sufficiency.

Bob Sirman, director of the Canada Council for the Arts, describes how built form should be an embodiment of a community narrative. Daniel Kemmis, former Mayor of Missoula, shares an imagined dialog with Jacobs,' discussing the delicate interconnection between cities and their surrounding rural areas. And Roberta Brandes Gratz—urban critic, author, and former head of Public Policy of the New York State Preservation League—asserts the importance of architectural preservation to environmentally sound urban planning practices.

What We See asks us all to join the conversation about next steps for shaping socially just, environmentally friendly, and economically prosperous urban communities.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:13 -0400)

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