Nathan Storring: In a world that is increasingly urbanized, and in a time of rising inequality and environmental crisis, Jane Jacobs still has plenty to tell us. As we note in the book, her vision of the city was not only one of lively streets, but of a place where any ordinary person can make and carry out their own “vital little plans.” In the social realm, this is what keeps our cities interesting, safe, and functional. In the economic realm, this microscopic, often marginal activity is what continues to create an urban middle class, and what produces the genuinely groundbreaking innovations that upset the status quo. Without that flow of new plans by ordinary people, she argued, the rich would grow richer, the poor would grow in number, and our problems would pile up unsolved—a claim that sounds eerily familiar today.
IFOA: How can we use her ideas to make our cities better?
Nathan Storring: There are so many fresh, concrete ideas and strategies in Vital Little Plans that people could try out in their own community. Fundamentally, though, I think the most important thing Jane Jacobs has to teach us isn’t what she thought about the city, but how she thought about it. She encourages us readers to observe real places, talk to real people, and come to our own conclusions based on what we see and hear, rather than relying on conventional wisdom—including hers.
IFOA: Tell us about editing this book.
Nathan Storring: This book had steeped for several years before we really started working on it in early 2014. My first job after graduating from OCAD University in Toronto was actually working on a graphic novel compilation of short stories about Jane Jacobs with some of her colleagues. It never came to fruition, but in the process, I read all of her books and got a second education on cities from those wonderful people. It was around that time that I started noticing a few obscure articles by Jane Jacobs and tucking them away in a folder on my computer. A few years later, I met Sandy as a Masters student at Brown University, and he first raised the idea of publishing these articles as a collection, especially given her centennial this year.
The actual editing process was quite difficult. We have a massive spreadsheet of every article, speech and interview we found, and what made it into the book is less than a quarter of that spreadsheet. We narrowed it down by focusing on Jacobs’s own words, avoiding things she wrote collaboratively and including interviews only sparingly. We also narrowed the field to works that offers both fresh, new material and connections to her major books. For example, many speeches build upon her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), but address things she never talked about there, like infill construction or new kinds of zoning. And of course, we tried to avoid too much overlap between the works, since many ideas and examples recur throughout her career.
In terms of organization, we decided to present the works chronologically rather than thematically to dispel the idea that you can really understand any part of Jacobs’s thought in isolation. The city building intertwines with the economics which intertwines with the ethics. Instead, the works are divided into periods that reflect important moments in her writing career: when she moved to New York; when she began writing at Architectural Forum; when she decided to become an author rather than continue her career as a journalist, and so on. Each part adds a new layer of themes to the last, but the prior themes never disappear.
IFOA: What will this work teach the new architects, urban planners and policy makers?
Nathan Storring: People often talk about how Jane Jacobs has already been incorporated into the work of city planners and architects and urban politicians, but I hope this book will challenge urbanists to reexamine how deeply they really make use of her ideas. The physical city she described in Death and Life—dense and mixed-use with short blocks and old buildings—has become conventional wisdom. But the thinking behind those qualities is lost. We preserve plenty of old buildings, but we’re terrible at preserving the affordability of housing and workspace, which is why Jacobs advocated for saving old buildings in the first place. So hopefully this collection will help professionals think through Jacobs’s ideas about the social and economic city in greater depth, and if they disagree with her reasoning, I hope it spurs some passionate, thoughtful rebuttals.
IFOA: How would you describe Jane Jacobs’ ideal neighborhood or community?
Nathan Storring: I think I accidentally already have: a place where any ordinary person can make and carry out their own “vital little plans.” In other words, a place that is not only pleasant and lively, but a place that serves the greater potential of cities as Jacobs saw it: problem solving, prosperity, and social mobility.
Nathan Storring @ IFOA:
Robert Kanigel, Nathan Storring, and Samuel Zipp discuss Jane Jacobs’ legacy and how she changed our perception of the neighborhood and the city with David Miller on Saturday, October 29 at 12pm. For tickets click here!