"A Tribute To Jane Jacobs-Urban Activist & Author" By Sumit Kaur, Ex-Chief Architect, Chandigarh

Submitted by Sarbjit Bahga

"A Tribute To Jane Jacobs-Urban Activist & Author" By Sumit Kaur, Ex-Chief Architect, Chandigarh

India Architecture News - May 05, 2019 - 08:22   13924 views

"Cities have the capability of
providing something for everybody,
only because, and only when,
they are created by everybody."

- Jane Jacobs

Last summer I spent a whole afternoon in the sprawling Washington Square Park in Manhattan, New York. The place is an oasis, a meeting place and centre for cultural activity thronged by students from the surrounding buildings of New York University, residents and visitors to the city.

As I relaxed in the lawns under the shade of the tall trees and in close proximity to the old Hangmen’s Elm and the band playing soft instrumental music, I watched people of all age groups enjoying and having fun. Some had spread out sheets and lunch baskets, others strolled in the vast pedestrian plaza clicking selfies against the backdrop of the monumental Washington Arch or cheering with excitement as they splashed into the beautiful fountain - the centrepiece of the park.

Jane Jacobs fought to prevent Washington Square Park from being demolished for a highway.

The energy and vibrancy were infectious and I too soon joined in - transforming from a passive onlooker to an active participant. This was not my first visit to the place and nor shall it be the last. The next will be special-filled with gratitude and reverence for Jane Jacobs, the urban activist, who I just learnt had fought a tough but successful battle against Robert Moses' ambitious plans of the Lower

Manhattan Expressway which would have played havoc had it gone through. It would not only have stripped the park of its green cover, sense of space and quiet but would have also uprooted houses and displaced residents of the Greenwich Village Neighbourhood which would have come in its way.

A salute to Jacobs' daring and conviction is surely due!!

Jane Jacobs (4 May 1916 - 25 April 2006)

During my next visit to NYC, my eyes shall also hunt for 555, Hudson Road, the residence where Jane Jacob stayed with her architect husband and three children for more than 20 years. Living in the locality she keenly observed the "street ballets" and firmed up her concept of "eyes on the streets", high density, mixed-use, and community-based planning approach - recommended ingredients for a good city, and which she put across so eloquently in her groundbreaking book - The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The fearless and vocal critic, also vehemently opposed urban renewal projects, that were sweeping the post World War II US cities, tearing down old blocks and replacing them with bland building blocks. Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City, Le Corbusier's Radiant City, ‘Tower in the Parks', also did not find her favour. Later when she shifted to Toronto, the committed soul did not shy from saving the city of Toronto from a similar expressway, despite having faced arrest in the previous case.

Jane Jacobs lived at 69 Albany Avenue (white porch) in Toronto's Annex for 35 years.

Though Jane Jacobs herself was not a qualified architect or urban planner, (she took help of her architect husband to learn how to read blueprints), her books the Death and Life of Great American Cities along with the other books she wrote -the Economy of Cities, the Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle for Separatism, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Systems of Survival, the Nature of Economics, Dark Age Ahead are popular and have inspired many modern-day urban planners, architects and urban designers and economists .

My first introduction to the book was at undergrad level in the Chandigarh College of Architecture, followed by a more thorough and deeper insight while perusing the post-graduate course in Urban Design from Delhi’s School of Planning and Architecture. The paperback book is now once again out of my bookshelf, half read, with a promise to be loaned to a fellow colleague of the Indo Global College of Architecture, Abhipur where I now teach. Jane Jacobs concepts are extremely relevant today and the message is spreading worldwide.

As the tide of urbanization sweeps across the globe, and we build new Smart Cities or expand and infill the existing cities and towns with sky- piercing buildings, flyovers and other state-of-the-art physical and social infrastructure, let us just pause for a moment to pay heed to Jane Jacobs words of wisdom and equip ourselves to take sensitive and sensible decisions leading us towards a sustainable future.

May Jane Jacobs Soul Rest in Peace and the Birds Eye View perspective from up there be satisfying as she watches ‘People Centric' cities offer a happy, vibrant, healthy, safe and fulfilling life to the enriched and awakened residents.

 Sumit Kaur, Former Chief Architect, Chandigarh Administration at Washington Square Park. Photo © Gurtej Singh.

All images courtesy of unless otherwise specified.

> via inputs from Sumit Kaur, Former Chief Architect, Chandigarh Administration.