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What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs – book review

I was sent the book What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs to review.  There will be more material from essays in this inspirational book in future Village Connections Blogs.

Jane Jacobs, a well-known urbanist-activist and writer died in 2006. Now, four years later, What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, a compilation of essays by 33 well known thinkers from around the world, seeks to retrieve and add to Jane’s observations, reconstructing them to help meet current challenges.

Jacobs’ seminal work on urbanism The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961. It was a critique on modern urban planning based on separation, such as of people into industrial, commercial and residential zones by rationalist planners who privilege order and efficiency. Jacobs advocated instead, an integrated form of urbanism. Her approach was based on first observing the interdependence of people and structures in the city, noting the “intensely interactive web of relationships” and “organised complexity,” and noting also that “messy inefficiencies” are fundamental to flourishing cities.

This publication of essays that take forward Jacobs’s thinking is timely. If anyone had any doubts before the global recession that Jacobs was right about the interdependence of everything, and the need for an integrated approach, there can be no such doubts now.

There are calls for an integrated approach to thinking and planning, but such calls tend to come from those situated in separate silos. Resources are then allocated for attempts at communication between separate silos, but not for integrated planning that would avoid silo thinking in the first place. Jacobs didn’t work in silos. She was a free thinker. Her insights, based on many years of observation and activism, provide a helpful lens from which to see anew.

“Eyes Wide Open” is the title of the introduction, and we are told Jacobs “held a bright torch to everything she observed, and that brilliant light revealed obscure details, hidden corners, and new interpretations that transformed our consciousness.”

The strong message throughout the book is to see clearly in order to have a realistic vision and that Jacobs’ observations would help us see our world more clearly. But what does it mean to see like Jane Jacobs?  She is quoted as cautioning, “One thing I do know, or think I do, is that it is most important to look at the real world, not at what somebody has said is right – and that includes me!”

As Editors Stephen A Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth point out, “What we see is largely who we are and what we have learned to see”.

Jacobs provides a torch, the essayist’s magnify the light and we bring to the readings our own light.

The observations from diverse sources – political, economic, medical, arts, planning, community and academic – could have a fragmenting affect, yet the contributions from individual essays seem to come together in a way that progresses the work as a whole. How does coherence come from such diverse observations? A major feature is the inclusive conversational style. It works.  I often felt as though I was with really interesting people with insights and ideas and that Jane Jacobs was with us.

There are 33 essays in the book and it is fair to say that while not all the essays will be equally interesting and relevant to all readers, I nonetheless think there is something in each essay that makes the book worth reading from beginning to end.

Readers will observe many instances of the new in the old and old in the new. We observe what works. We learn from nature, how “succulents teach us how to make the most of a scant rainfall,” and “oaks teach us how to handle a hurricane with grace”. We visit a “tool-house” in India, places where people live and work, places which are used in multiple ways.  We learn from the past, recalling how some of us have lived in places where work and living was more integrated, where children could visit their parents at work. We observe the city economy, and what is needed to invigorate it, collaboration with other cities, urban manufacturing, and local currencies. We observe children’s needs, by first thinking about our favourite places when we were children, noting these are generally not the controlled places designed just for children. We observe many successful projects, such as cycling in New York, where cycle lanes are on the inside, not outside, of parked cars. We observe slums and see creative human-scale functioning neighbourhoods… and much more.

As an academic who has also been a local government politician and activist, I found that the emphasis on linking universities to community and transdisciplinary knowledge that helps create more effective solutions for solving real-world problems, music to my ears.

I took a few days to read the essays, and a few more to take notes, not because the book is long, but because on the way I found myself wanting longer conversations with authors, looking up websites, following leads, then sharing anecdotes, quotes and insights with others.

I found myself reading with a pencil in hand, putting light pencil markings on quotes or illustrations to come back to, thinking I could easily rub the pencil out when I lend the book to friends. Looking back, I see I have pencil marks on so many pages that I will have to encourage people to get their own copy.

As you may gather, I wanted to recommend this book without reservation, but there was one small thing which didn’t work for me – the study guide. This guide, with questions to “encourage conversations about ideas and opportunities that matter to you” was included, like an appendix, at the end. I had been looking forward to this section, but when I started reading some of the questions, the change of tone from inclusive conversation to language that included academic and policy jargon and acronyms caught me off guard. I felt as if I was coming from fun-time to exam-time. I was reminded that crafting ‘good’ questions, ones which will extend and not curtail conversations, is an art. Fortunately, the study guide was an optional extra, like a biscuit with tea, easy to take or leave. I chose to leave.

I encourage anyone who is interested in our cities and economies, how they work and how they can be vibrant and flourishing to read this book. I regret that I couldn’t choose from the essays which illustrations or quotes or insights to highlight in a single review, there is just too much quality.

See About the Book

Hazel Ashton is a Research Associate at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Canterbury, Aotearoa New Zealand

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