What Would Jane Do?
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What Would Jane Do?

On the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, four former Toronto mayors gather to discuss her work.

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As the sound of the subway beneath the auditorium came rumbling up from the floor, threatening to drown out the voices of those on stage, former Toronto mayor John Sewell couldn’t contain himself. “One good thing Ford is doing is to make sure the subway doesn’t run as often.”

We were here at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education to discuss Jane Jacobs and her urban principles on the 50th anniversary of the publication of her best-known work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. This was also, of course, a perfect event at which to gnash much teeth over the current state of the city and, specifically, Ford’s recent attempt at hijacking waterfront development.

Organized by the Centre for City Ecology and co-hosted by the University of Toronto’s Cities Centre, the event brought former Toronto mayors David Crombie, John Sewell, Art Eggleton, and Barbara Hall together to discuss their personal connection to Jane Jacobs, as well as her extensive body of work on cities and urban economies. Although Jacobs rose to fame through her community engagement in New York, opposing grand planning schemes of Robert Moses in the early 1960s, it was her activism in Toronto after she moved here in 1968 that really affected Torontonians. (Spadina Expressway, anyone?)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, while only one book out of several that she wrote, is by far her most widely read, and often touted as the one of most influential ever written on urban issues. In it she rejected the modernist top-down planning principles of the time that saw the displacement of thousands of people due to urban renewal schemes and urban highway projects. She was fighting against what she characterized as a deep dislike of the concept of urbanism itself, by planners who were in effect working to take apart each of the elements that created the vibrant, lively, and diverse city that she had grown to love. In that seminal book, she espoused four planning elements that she maintained were essential to a healthy city: short blocks, mixed uses, buildings of different ages and condition, and medium density. Without all of these four things, she thought, a city’s vitality would begin to erode.

But she also talked at length in her books about the “ecology” of a city, often comparing a city’s inner workings and economic activity to those of a complex, interconnected ecological system (it is from this that the Centre for City Ecology gets its name). It was this organic understanding of the urban that allowed Jacobs to conduct a sensitive and thorough analysis of how a city actually worked. You couldn’t just bulldoze whole blocks, ignore the community, and build something shiny and new and expect it to work just because you thought you’d done the math. You first had to understand the complex system thriving underneath.

While each mayor talked in turn about how Jacobs would be pleased with the social and cultural diversity of Toronto today, they also spoke about the discord between suburban residents and those that reside in the denser environs of the old city of Toronto. David Crombie was particularly forceful when enjoined downtowners to listen to those in the suburbs, and to share ideas with them. “We keep assuming that if they would be like us, life would be better,” he said. Barbara Hall agreed, saying that we need to talk to those that don’t share our views. She asked the audience to raise their hands if they were from the old city of Toronto. About three quarters of the room did so.

When asked what Jacobs would be displeased about in modern day Toronto, Crombie immediately raised the matter of a lack of respect for public participation, with John Sewell quickly agreeing and bluntly called the process a fraud. Whether it’s a marathon committee meeting that lasts until the wee hours of the morning or tossing out carefully constructed waterfront plans, Ford and Co. have shown that they consider themselves the experts in all areas of city government and planning.

It’s not just the public that the administration has shown a complete disregard for, but many of city’s councillors. Consider the ambush of Mike Layton (Ward 19, Trinity-Spadina) over the cancellation of the Fort York Bridge in his ward. Or there’s Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre-Rosedale), who has been blindsided twice by changes proposed for her ward without her prior knowledge: once over the Jarvis Street bike lanes, and more recently over the call to review the Yonge-Dundas scramble intersection.

But, as recent polls show, the wider public, even those in the suburban communities that voted heavily for Rob Ford, have begun to reject the divisive rhetoric and cost-cutting agenda that has had a stranglehold of City Hall. Has the mayor learned anything? With his declaration that he is going to “stay the course”, one assumes not. As Councillor Josh Matlow (Ward 22, St. Paul’s) proclaimed on Twitter this morning: “Mayor Ford no longer has the confidence of Toronto nor the majority of council. Downtown and suburbs alike. The season’s changing at City Hall.” This sentiment will truly be tested at a series of council meetings in the coming weeks. In any event, Ford and Co. ignore the community at their peril.

One can’t help wonder what would happen if Jane Jacobs were alive in today’s Toronto, and how she would approach our current political state. But we don’t have Jacobs here to stand up for us anymore. As David Crombie said, “Nobody else is going to do it. We’ve got to do it.”