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Jane Jacobs: More Relevant Than Ever!


More than 1,000 professionals are gathered this week in downtown Vancouver for the 2022 IDA Annual Conference & Marketplace.  Together we are exploring critical solutions for recovery in addition to uniting to reenergize and inspire the profession. Recent years have been challenging due to the pandemic and the months ahead look to be equally difficult with extraordinary inflation, uncertain return to office trends, a housing crisis, limited workforce, supply chain delays and public safety issues, all of which are taking place amidst growing polarized politics just about everywhere.

Consider our colleagues across the pond for just a moment. The impacts of Brexit, the pandemic and the war in Ukraine are continually changing the civic landscape. In just two weeks’ time, the UK has experienced a change in both the monarchy and the prime minister.  And as the country looks toward the winter season, they are facing soring increases (80%) in energy costs and overall inflation hovering around 10%. Challenging times remain and the pace of change most everywhere is extraordinary.

Over the past two years, I’ve found inspiration while revisiting the work of Jane Jacobs, more specifically by reading and reviewing the Death and Life of Great American Cities. It’s been fascinating to reconsider her teachings within the context of a post-pandemic recovery and realize just how deeply relevant her work remains for today’s challenging times. Within the text, we can diagnose why a single-use district proved less resilient during the pandemic. Her descriptions of how single-use cultural center campuses lack vitality when the stages and gallery are closed are reminiscent of when workers vacated office central business districts.  Yes, there are many parallels to discover in her book.

We can learn how to naturally activate great parks by leveraging a diverse neighborhood of workers and residents – with children and seniors alike – and revisiting the vision of a complete community. Jane Jacobs illustrates how vibrant neighborhoods provide a social structure that balances both individual privacy and the engaged community needed to help protect and make public spaces safe. And through incremental development that respects the importance of old buildings, she highlights how cities can continue supporting startup businesses and provide housing at all levels. These and many other thoughtful teachings make the Death and Life of Great American Cities remarkable on point for the future.

The critical importance and role of place management gains greater clarity as we embrace Jane Jacob’s recommendations to empower many different groups of people to be engaged in multiple plans, both official and unofficial, for building their city. Civic governance has been evolving for decades, with place management organization being perhaps one of the most revolutionary civic inventions in the 20th century.  Our industry bridges the gap between the public, private and social sectors. Place management leaders, while technically proficient in shaping cities, have a vision for what is possible, and above all else, deliver value – not for themselves – but for the businesses, residents and visitors to their communities.

While addressing the urgent challenges of the day, take some time to revisit the teachings of Jane Jacobs.  I think you too will find the parallels obvious.  And more importantly, the guidance will help us all create more complete communities for all.