Connecting to Jane Jacobs

The headline on the front page of this Sunday’s New York Times Week in Review section roared “Outgrowing Jane Jacobs.” The piece suggests that Jacobs’ view of community life is outdated, even quaint, and not so relevant anymore. While part of this argument may be right, the heart of it is wrong. I still remember when I read Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I was an undergraduate at Skidmore College; I read it again in graduate school. Now, every so often, I take my weathered copy off the bookshelf to re-learn another point.

Jane Jacobs, who recently passed away, detailed the vibrant and interconnected lives of people in neighborhoods, and helped a generation or more of people interested in community to think hard about what brings about and sustains community life.

So here comes Nicolai Ouroussoff, who suggests, rightly so I believe, that “the threats facing the contemporary city are not what they were when [Jacobs] first formed her ideas, now nearly 50 years ago.” Suburban sprawl, booms in urban population, homogeneity of communities, large-scale projects – these and other challenges cannot be fixed, the reporter says, “simply through the incremental growth in existing neighborhoods.” Jacobs was a kind of “small is beautiful” proponent.

Indeed, I have made a similar point to Ouroussoff elsewhere in my blog and work: that communities have undergone such great change that we need to rethink how we view them and create new mechanisms for people to shape their communities and engage with one another. The scale, size, and shape of our growing and often fragmented communities present new challenges for us today. I routinely see these challenges in places like Tampa where the region has busted open at the seams; any kind of regional solutions are hard to come by as most people live in, and identify with, small pockets of the community. And yet, how can we deal with county-wide public schools?

In Las Vegas, one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, a new community performing arts center is being built, the kind of big initiative that Jane Jacobs might have scorned. You may be wondering why a community that has the “Strip,” which is already a world-class entertainment district, is moving ahead with such an initiative. Because by building an arts center for the community, not tourists, there is the possibility to create greater community identify and cohesion. So, here’s a big-time project that might help people’s sense of community.

But, where I think Ouroussoff got it wrong is to dismiss the very heart of Jane Jacob’s perspective: that people want to be connected to one another. In fact, I wrote a report on Las Vegas with my colleague Jill Freeman, On the American Frontier, in which the people of Las Vegas told us that the No. 1 challenge facing them is how to build a sense a community when people are pursuing their own individual, customized American Dream.

Indeed, no matter how the size and shape of our communities change – in fact, because of how they are changing – a basic aspiration of people remains how to feel connected to one another. This is not about community planning; it is about human nature.

On that score, Jane Jacobs got it right.