Talking Jane Jacobs and Urban Planning with Citizen Jane director Matt Tyrnauer
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Talking Jane Jacobs and Urban Planning with Citizen Jane director Matt Tyrnauer

We chat with the director of the TIFF world premiere about Jane Jacobs's legacy and the trick to growing a healthy city.

Still from Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

Still from Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.

Don’t call Citizen Jane: Battle for the City a biopic. Matt Tyrnauer’s fleetly paced but exhaustive documentary, having its world premiere at the Hot Docs Cinema today, isn’t concerned with the life of the journalist, self-trained urban planner, and long-time Toronto resident so much as the life of the key idea she brought into the world: that cities like New York and Toronto are not static plots but dynamic entities, constituted by the people who live there and the uses to which they put the space around them. Tyrnauer’s film focuses not on Jacobs’s later career in Toronto, where she brought her grassroots resistance to urban renewal projects and wrote the majority of her plainspoken, observational books and articles, but on her formative years in New York in the mid-1960s, where she took on city planner Robert Moses.

If Citizen Jane has an argument, it’s that cities pose a fundamental imaginative challenge to the ordinary people who presently live there as well as the people entrusted to shape their future, and it’s up to individual citizens to organize if they want to live in (and leave behind) an organic environment that works for them. The battle Tyrnauer’s film traces is largely one between aloof modernist design, which favours expansive freeways and skyscrapers, and the kind of immersive urban activism Jacobs made her life’s work. It’s a difference, Tyrnauer stresses throughout, between looking at the city as a top-down blueprint that just happens to have people in it, and believing that the spirit of the city resides in the citizens on the ground, who fill its neighbourhoods and use its infrastructure.

The film clearly delineates its enemy: Moses’s radical vision to renew New York City by designating vibrant neighbourhoods as slums and razing their distinctive character to make way for freeways and isolated projects created with no sense of how people interact with their environment, get to work, do groceries, and relax. Against this we see Jacobs’s push for cities to be designed for the people who use them, including Moses’s dreaded pedestrian, who makes it into his schematics only as a smudge in the way of another expressway. Though the documentary is a period piece by design, it’s easy to see the contemporary resonance of Jacobs’s fight for cities that still struggle to balance the interests of pedestrians and drivers.

We chatted with Tyrnauer about urban planning, modernist design, and the utopian city. Our setting, appropriately enough, was 401 Richmond, a building whose redevelopment was overseen by Jacobs’s associates and friends in the Zeidler family, who responded to Jacobs’s puckish challenge in The Death and Life of American Cities to find new ideas in old buildings.

Torontoist: A title card at the end of the film points out that Jacobs wrote eight books after Death and Life of Great American Cities, and lived in Toronto for decades, even being instrumental toward cancelling the Spadina Expressway. That’s a lot of life to pack into one title card. What drew you to this particular moment in her career?

An alternate title for the film could have been “The Education of Jane Jacobs.” What I found fascinating was The Death and Life of American Cities, which is her classic. I was interested in what made that book such a watershed. I didn’t really want to make a biopic of Jacobs. I wanted to make a movie about her impact in the world of cities, and urbanization. This is a woman with no college degree, a journalist who was obviously brilliant, and extremely observant. Over the course of her early career as a journalist, she saw things that nobody had seen before and had the courage and temerity and intelligence to speak about them in a way that changed the practice of city planning for the generations that followed the publication of the book. That was the story I wanted to tell, and the period in which to tell it was the postwar period of the United States.

The topic is so huge. Obviously, in 1968 she moved to Toronto and wrote the majority of her books here, and had an enormous impact on the city. But we had to focus on another story. The battles against the powers-that-be personified by Robert Moses took place in that period of her life.

Your film tracks the conflict between a host of hyper-educated urban planners parachuted into the neighbourhoods they are transforming and self-trained activists like Jacobs, who actually lived and worked in those spaces. Why do you think it was so important that Jacobs lived in the neighbourhood she wrote about and worked to save from these potentially devastating urban renewal projects?

One of the big ideas in the book is that cities are people. At the time the book was written, this was really off the table as a concept. Quite the opposite was practiced. This was the era of white-man-knows-best coming out of WWII, especially in the United States: there was this command and control ethos, and women were not part of the equation in urban planning or architecture.

Jacobs comes at this from outside the system. She doesn’t bother to get a college degree. Out of necessity and passion, she works as a journalist. At the same time, she moves with her husband to an unlikely area, at that time, the Far West Village, which was in some people’s estimation a slum. But she was able to see things in it that others couldn’t. And over this period she develops a case that the city is something that is constructed from the bottom up. Then, in that same period, she pivots to activism. Moving into this community, she starts to understand in a personal way how individuals form a neighbourhood.

It seems organic in hindsight. The community was lucky to have her, because she was this incredible synthesizer of all this information, and a great catalyst, and a leader, although she didn’t particularly want to be. I would emphasize that this idea of building a community from the bottom up, which seems totally obvious after 1960s activism and power-to-the-people movements, was not on the table then.

How important do you think it was that her neighbourhood had a leader who was also an emerging public figure?

If you talked to people who were involved in these movements, they’d say these things didn’t have leaders, that they were collective. I wasn’t there, but it occurs to me that if Jacobs hadn’t been in the mix they might not have gotten as far as they did. She was someone who saw things, and had a knack for organizing. If you talk about it in terms of organizing, then her role is quite palatable in the context of social movements. Barack Obama’s biography similarly begins with community organizing. The interesting thing about Jacobs is that while there were others who led, and others who organized, she happened to be the one who wrote the book.

How important do you think it was that she was a journalist as as well as an organizer?

That she was a journalist allowed her access to a lot of information that the casual person not doing research would not have had. It’s interesting to talk about her in the context of journalist-activists. Journalists of late are supposed to be impartial; in the middle of the twentieth century, though, there were more muckraker journalists like Ida Tarbell and H.L. Mencken, who we might put Jacobs alongside.

One of the battles this film is about is this conflict between a designer ethos and a resident ethos. One is abstract and comes from the top-down, and the other is organic, viewing the city as a place with its own internal sense of organization. I’m curious about where aesthetics fit into this. Moses has a certain Jetsons aesthetic of what the future of New York is supposed to look like, and you have to admit it’s beautiful in its sterile way. Can good, workable cities like the ones championed by Jacobs also be beautiful, or is the beautiful city incompatible with the usable city?

I’m an architecture obsessive, so I come at my interest in cities from that point of view. I love modernist architecture, and this is one reason I find Jacobs so mind-blowing. Before I embarked on this project, the idea of a beautiful city and an architecturally pristine city was very appealing to me. You look at all of those Margaret Bourke-White photos of New York as the skyscraper city and they’re incredibly inspiring. I have books on the plans of Paris and Rome. I’m obsessed with Pope Julius, who redesigned Rome, and made it the baroque city that it is today.

Jacobs turns all of that on its head, and it’s devastating. She says that a city cannot be a work of art. You begin to understand that the network of self-organizing communities, and the health of them, is the real health of the city. The buildings can be very beautiful or very ugly, but it doesn’t make a difference to the health of the city and its functionality or success. This is a powerful realization at the core of the book: some of the world’s ugly cities are the most beloved by the people who live in them. They’re the most functional, the healthiest, the most sustainable. She tells you why, and to understand it helps you appreciate what the city is—a community of people mutually supporting each other in larger networks that keep the city buoyant. The city is not a district of shiny skyscrapers, or a Frank Gehry museum, much as I’m a fan.

Your film ends with the grim suggestion that China’s industrial cityscapes are modernist dystopias the likes of which even planners like Moses couldn’t have imagined. Yet you come back around to the model of Jacobs’s activism and the material change it affected, and seem to land on a note of cautionary optimism. Is Jacobs’s vision of organizing within your city the utopia to Moses’s dystopia?

[Sociologist] Sassia Sasken says in the film that history has outdone Robert Moses. Utopia is a tricky word, but we’ll play with it here. There are two utopias presented in the film. Robert Moses has a utopian vision that turned out to be a dystopia. That was utopian planning at its height. And it does’t work. Jacobs, you could say, believed in a utopia of the everyday, a utopia of the quotidian. I think that’s the beauty of it. We thought the utopia was going to be a master plan, a great scheme, innovative ideas, the automobile, and science that would bring us out of the so-called slums. But those things led to a great many problems — unforeseen, in fairness to Le Corbusier and all the city planners of that era. Automobiles and the internal combustion engine led to a whole category of problems that we’re grappling with urgently right now.

A little less obvious is the fact that out of this utopian scheme for cities comes a formula that is guaranteed to destroy them. In mid-century we mistook the power of utopian planning for what would save us, but what Jacobs points out in the middle of all this—before these things were even built, when they’re just starting to be built—is that this kind of planning for the greater good could be a great evil. It wiped away what was good about the city: people self-organizing, and making the city in their own image. Her utopia is the utopia of people acting together toward what she calls “organized complexity.” The dark age ahead of the movie, to use Jacobs’s phrase, is that her way is not winning right now, except in intellectual circles.

What do you think Jacobs can teach us about how to be citizens in our own cities?

First of all, you need to understand the city as Jacobs saw it, as being built from the bottom up. Once you realize that, you realize that you actually can participate in your city. Jacobs says that as an individual, you can’t do anything. But you can organize. Once that door is unlocked for you, if you care to be involved, it becomes much less daunting. The intention of the movie was to give you the key to unlock that door. Maybe once it’s unlocked we can create a Jane Jacobs in a place that could use one.

For showtimes, visit the TIFF website.