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What Would Jacobs Do?

May 7, 2006
Commentary By TYLER SMITH

Jane Jacobs, the great thinker on the subject of urban life and advocate for the hustle and bustle of busy city streets, died on April 25, and it was interesting to read the many eulogies praising her work. Her remarkable 1961 book "Death and Life of Great American Cities" gave substance and focus to all those who didn't buy into the vision - hyped by city governments and chambers of commerce - that the future of the American city lay in downtown office towers accessed by highways.

The encomiums for Jacobs came from her own city, New York, but also from Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven and Hartford; all cities still wrestling with the scars and residue of past planning policies. She appeared frumpy but was passionate and articulate, and she took on the titans of "progress."

She rallied her neighbors and other like-minded thinkers to confront New York highway czar Robert Moses and stop his plans for an eight-lane highway through lower Manhattan. She rebuked the planner and urban renewal advocate Edmund Bacon for his makeover plans for Philadelphia. At a Boston conference when developer James Rouse urged the planners and developers attending to "dream no small dreams" she countered: Beware, for such grand plans can turn to nightmares.

Her point of view was not that of the NIMBY, Not In My Back Yard. To the contrary, she believed that the planning principles that came into fashion after World War II - Urban Renewal, the Interstate Highway Act and the Federal Housing Authority that financed suburban development but not inner-city rehabilitation - were not just killing cities, but promoting an auto-centric lifestyle that was lifeless.

Her point of reference was her then home in the West Village of Manhattan. She saw in the fine-grained density of these city streets - filled with cars, pedestrians, children and adults - a vitality and sense of community that was lacking in the newly built suburbs and the modern downtown high-rise developments. She favored a dense but low-rise scale, mixing residential and commercial uses over zoning that separated uses. Most of all, she recognized the near-irreparable damage to urban neighborhoods resulting from bringing highways into and through the city.

I don't know if Jane Jacobs ever visited or spoke specifically about Hartford other than decry Connecticut General's move out of the city in 1956. In a generic sense she would have seen then-prosperous, mid-sized cities such as Hartford and New Haven as folly-minded with their aggressive urban renewal and highway building programs. She would have sided with those who successfully worked to stop the state Department of Transportation from building its proposed six-lane "connector" through Bushnell Park in 1973, and those who were not able to stop the Oak Street Connector in New Haven shortly thereafter.

Recently, Hartford has taken steps to re-establish the urban life that was lost to urban renewal. This has come principally with efforts to build a downtown residential population. Most of these projects have benefited from considerable governmental subsidies in one form or another.

It's an important start. But we are not following up with the necessary policy and enforcement initiatives that will generate the kind of vitality Jane Jacobs spoke of.

During his professional life in Hartford, we largely ignored the urgings of architect Jack Dollard, who for decades pushed many of the ideas advocated by Jane Jacobs. More recently we have invited and listened to the recommendations of Toronto planning guru Ken Greenberg, himself educated in New York City and a disciple of Jane Jacobs. But too often we have taken only a fragment of his vision and applied it sparingly and inconsistently. It's as if the decision makers believe we can have it both ways: continue to accommodate the car-bound commuter with seas of asphalt parking, and also achieve a pedestrian-active downtown.

If Hartford is to find the "life" in the great American city that Jane Jacobs speaks of, we will need both macro policy changes at the state level and micro enforcement at the city level. We will need much more and better public transportation. And as Tom Condon pointed out in a recent Place column, we will need a state tax policy that encourages development of vacant city parcels rather than one that makes parking lots the likely highest and best use.

The city must develop and enforce quality of life ordinances and improvements that will make the pedestrian experience more pleasurable, safe and inviting. This includes everything from enforcing city speed limits, a sensible street parking program, litter control and the whole package of coordinated and well-designed streetscape improvements, such as bus shelters, paving patterns, crosswalk signals, benches and plantings.

Jane Jacobs saw the quality of city life measured in blocks and streetscapes. It was all about the physical components of a street - its scale, character and amenities - and how each element could support and promote a full range of human activities.

In like fashion, we need to look at each of our downtown streets, and not think about widening them, but how we can bring to them the qualities that Jane Jacobs has clearly defined for us.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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