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Alexandra Lange

Jane Jacobs Is Still Watching


I have been re-reading Jane Jacobs this week (not nearly as fun as re-reading Jane Austen, which might be the only thing Elena Kagan and I have in common), and despite my dislike of her beef with architects and planners, so many points seem strangely prescient. Like this:

We are the lucky possessors of a city order that makes it relatively simple to keep the peace because there are plenty of eyes on the street [Italics mine]. But there is nothing simple about that order itself, or the bewildering number of components that go into it. Most of these components are specialized in one way or another. They unite in their joint effect upon the sidewalk, which is not specialized in the least. That is its strength.

I have read this chapter, “The uses of sidewalks: safety,” tens of times, but this point seems to gather added relevance after the attempt to car bomb Times Square was foiled by a t-shirt vendor. It was not the hardened streetscape that stopped the explosion, a security camera that recorded suspicious activity, or a law enforcement officer that noticed something unusual, but a commercial version of the stoop-sitters that Jacobs says will keep the peace.

New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan has been systematically remaking major intersections, like Broadway at Times Square, with pop-up plazas, areas of painted asphalt equipped with chairs and tables for instantaneous “park.” These were originally proposed as traffic calming measures, but they also add more eyes, and an extra measure of sidewalk ballet, to crowded areas that people previously had to push through as fast as their could. The plazas may actually provide more safety than a thousand oversize concrete planters. That was really Jacobs’s point. People make cities, not walls.



Posted in: Infrastructure, Planning, Theory + Criticism

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Alexandra Lange Alexandra Lange is an architecture and design critic, and author of Writing about Architecture: Mastering the Language of Buildings and Cities. (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012). Her work has appeared in The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Dwell, Metropolis, Print, New York Magazine and The New York Times.

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