Against the modernist nightmare: the legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs at a meeting in Greenwich Village, New York City, 1961. Image: Library of Congress, via Wikimedia Commons.

Back in May, urbanists around the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs. The American-Canadian author and activist’s spirited defence of inner-city neighbourhoods inspired a generation of urban activists and place-makers. So what might Jacobs have to teach a new generation of urbanists and planners?

Much of Jacobs' legacy stems from the successful “David and Goliath” campaigns she led in the late 1950s and 1960s against the development plans of Manhattan’s “master builder” Robert Moses.

Her first battle, to prevent an extension of Fifth Avenue that would have torn apart her beloved Washington Square Park, was followed by a series of protracted community campaigns. These ultimately saved some of Manhattan’s most iconic neighbourhoods – Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy – from “slum clearance” and demolition.

New York "master builder" Robert Moses with a model of Battery Bridge. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

At this time, many Americans were retreating to the suburbs, and city planners – epitomised by Moses, then head of the powerful Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority, which managed vast tracts of land in New York City – imposed their “comprehensive city plans” on neighbourhoods, with scant input from local communities.

Working under the spell of Le Corbusier’s vision of the “Radiant City” (Ville Radieuse), planners like Moses saw themselves playing the heroic role of a city’s surgeon. They justified their radical urban plans through appeals to natural or scientific principle. For Le Corbusier, automobiles were machines of circulation, the “lifeblood of the 20th century”; cities needed them to avoid stagnation.


In love with the ‘sidewalk ballet’

Jacobs resisted this vision. In her first and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs attacked planners for ruining the cultures of cities. She saw the modernist vision of cities as:

… the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.

Jacobs wrote:

When city designers try to find a design device that will express, in a clear and easy fashion, the ‘skeleton’ of city structure (expressways and promenades are current favourites for this purposes) they are on fundamentally the wrong track. A city’s very structure consists of a mixture of uses... We get close to its structural secrets when we deal with the conditions that generate diversity.

Instead of city spines and clean lines, she asked her readers to look more closely at what makes a street really work. She loved the “intricate sidewalk ballet”, a complex order that helped to maintain public safety and wellbeing through a “constant succession of eyes”.

The complexity of a place made it impossible to replicate.

The ballet of the good city never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place it is always replete with new observations.

Jacobs’ polemic against urban planning would become its orthodoxy. Death and Life has been required reading for students of urban planning for decades. Today they learn of the failed spaces created by modernist planners and the geographies of single-use enclaves and far-flung highways they spawned.

Jacobs' campaigning inspired urban activists around the world to stage protests in their own cities. This helped usher in a new era of citizen-centric planning frameworks.

As Saskia Sassen wrote recently, it was Jacobs who first urged the need to recognise the value of “place” when considering the implementation of urban policies.

Is Jane Jacobs still relevant or useful?

Although Jacobs is a profoundly influential figure in 20th-century urbanism, in many respects her radicalism can feel like it belongs to another era.

The Manhattan districts she fought to preserve represent some of the most expensive real estate in the world, so it’s hard to disagree that a city’s dense, historic core might be worth preserving. Economist Edward Glaeser talks about “Jacobs Spillovers” – the transfers of knowledge and activity that help to explain the generation of wealth in cities like New York and London.

Some might even ask: was Jacobs simply one of the first to fly the NIMBY flag against any developments taking place within the prized neighbourhoods they helped to gentrify?

But if we take a closer look at what Jacobs had to say – and how she said it – it becomes clear her ideas remain as radical and important as they were in the 1960s. This is perhaps no more so than in relation to rise of the “smart city”.

Smart cities and the rise of a new urban science

Today’s smart cities are big business, powered by the potential for big data and the internet of things to improve the efficiencies of urban systems. Smart cities offer solutions to improve transport management, make better investment decisions, improve accountability and promote transparent decision-making.

The premise is that with so much data (big data) being produced, planners, governments and researchers can better understand cities as complex systems, and make better decisions about how they are planned and managed.

This explosion of data in cities – from traffic data, through mobile communications data to sensor data capturing the behaviour of natural systems and the everyday uses of infrastructure assets – is giving rise to a new “urban science”.

This incorporates machine learning, predictive analytics and complexity science. Its champions – such as Mike Batty and Luis Bettencourt – argue that we are starting to see the emergence of Jacobs' “sidewalk ballet” in data-driven form.

But while the rise of big data and smart cities opens up possibilities for cities that were previously unthinkable, we should also be wary of the limitations.

The fine arts of urban observation

Jacobs wasn’t simply claiming that cities should be understood as complex systems. At a perhaps deeper level, Jacobs was arguing against visions of the city over-determined by the technologies that produce them: for LeCorbusier, as for Moses, the view of the city enabled by the innovation of flight helped give rise to new urban utopias like the Radiant City.

"We are Data Watchdogs": a video game that explores the implications of data-driven approaches to solve urban problems.

In writing Death and Life, Jacobs was also resisting the dominance of expert knowledge about a city, in favour of a democracy of lived experiences and everyday insights. She once reflected that:

… learning and thinking about city streets and the trickiness of city parks launched me into an unexpected treasure hunt.

As a new generation of planners are taught of the possibilities of a data-driven urban science, we need to remember that Jacobs' love of the sidewalk ballet also gave voice to the multiple languages, meanings, experiences and knowledge systems that underpin a vibrant urban culture.

Not all of these can be rendered by data-driven systems. Hopefully, the best insights into a city’s infinite complexity won’t only be produced by those trained with the skills to generate insights from big data.

Mobile phone data in Portugal show an average urban dweller of Lisbon has approximately twice as many contacts as an average individual in the rural town of Lixa. Image: Kael Greco, MIT Senseable City Lab.

The “data exhaust” of our daily lives will increasingly shape the way cities are understood. Much work remains to be done to ensure a cities data infrastructure is valued as a fundamental public asset.

But I can hear Jacobs issuing a word of warning: don’t forget to keep taking unexpected treasure hunts through city parks and keep your eyes on the street (not on your phones!). And keep listening out for different lived experiences and ways of knowing a place – not only those that can be rendered real-time as the data flows of complex systems.The Conversation

Sarah Barns is an urban studies foundation postdoctoral research fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society, Western Sydney University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.

As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City

New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.


In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.