The living dead

Charles 4 Comments

Ever heard of Jane Jacobs? I hadn’t til this morning. I’m a fan already. I live in Redditch, a new town which must have looked great on paper but turned out a brutal, car-clobbered flop – even before a majority of misguided citizens voted in the felonious Jacqui Smith as our MP. If only the planners had read Jane Jacobs. In Ms Jacobs’ acute analysis, Redditch is a town not of neighbourhoods but of disparities. Spot on.

Who was Jane Jacobs? Here’s something from the website:

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building … her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail, that now seem like common sense to generations of architects, planners, politicians and activists.

Jacobs saw cities as integrated systems that had their own logic and dynamism which would change over time according to how they were used. With a keen eye for detail, she wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, retail design and self-organization. She promoted higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies and mixed uses. Jacobs helped derail the car-centred approach to urban planning in both New York and Toronto, invigorating neighborhood activism by helping stop the expansion of expressways and roads … A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighborhoods develop, Jacobs encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work and play.

Here’s Ms Jacobs:

“…that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact… they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated…”

Here’s a delightful description of the “intricate ballet” performed by people as they walk the pavements:

“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex discount cialis pills order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

Jane Jacobs

Fans of Jane Jacobs keep her legacy alive by going on walks together. Jane’s Walk, they call this programme, “a series of free neighborhood walking tours that helps put people in touch with their environment and with each other, by bridging social and geographic gaps and creating a space for cities to discover themselves.” Each walk has a theme and, as they walk, everyone talks to each other.

In Toronto on 2 May they’re holding a Jane’s Walk with a death theme and will debate the proposition by its leader, funeral director Kory McGrath, that “the disappearance of funeral homes & burial grounds from urban neighbourhoods further removes us from our own understanding and acceptance of death, funeral rites & ceremonies, and compassion towards bereaved members of our communities.

These are the themes the walkers will explore:

-How is a location of a funeral home or burial ground important to the living?
-How does a visual reminder of death affect the bustle of city life?
-What do we learn about our neighbours and ourselves when sacred buildings and spaces are a part of our urban landscape?
-Why have funeral homes & cemeteries moved out of the city?
-With the secularization and multiculturalism of cities, how can funeral providers and burial grounds be redesigned to integrate meaningfully into a diverse community and become part of the fabric, not a place that is taboo or morbid?


Find out more about Jane Jacobs here and here.

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Nate Currey
Nate Currey
13 years ago

What a great post!

-The Jane's Walk USA Team

Rupert Callender
Rupert Callender
13 years ago

Great to see someone trying to reverse this trend. I once went to a public meeting, a consultation in which someone had bought a field next to a churchyard, a full churchyard mind, in a small Devon village with the intention of setting up a natural burial ground. The whole village was there, which largely consisted of middle class commuters. I was the only person who spoke in favour and was booed and hissed. These people had convinced themselves they were stopping some kind of get rich quick development, (people do absurd over calculated sums with NBG's) oblivious to the… Read more »
13 years ago

Fully agree with you Rupert! It has long astonished me how clever we have become about eliminating the visibility (that is to say, the reminders) of death in our modern world. This has not happened only by chance and greater competition for space from "life enterprises" – there is deep subconscious death denial at work here, manifesting itself from the individual through the family and up to the institutions such as city planners etc. Yet this aberration is of no real importance. I don't want to sound like a prophet of doom, but when death is denied, or pushed forward… Read more »


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