Jane Jacobs, the Ivy and Me

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May 4 2016 is the one hundredth anniversary of Jane Jacob’s birth. She was a remarkable lady,  who moved to New York City in the 1930’s and bucked the trend to go to suburbia, choosing to raise her three children in the gritty Greenwich Village and later in Brooklyn. And she wrote about planning and architecture, and had a clear sense of what was good and what was bad for people and for cities.

I have felt forever aligned with Jane Jacobs. I loved her  style of direct, concise writing, her inalienable belief that inner cities were places of beauty and people, and her tenacity taking on Robert Moses, the Darth Vader of  early 20th century New York City  road building.

In the early 1980’s, there were few women that had written, lectured in planning and of course had scolded Robert Moses. She came to speak at Robson Square in 1983. I was a student in planning school at the University of British Columbia. I was going to meet my idol. Jane Jacobs was the first woman I had met who actually knew and spoke about urban planning. This was a big deal.

I arrived four hours early to the hall she was going to be in. Of course there was no one there. I talked the security guard into letting me into the theatre early, and I decided where I wanted to sit to hear Jane speak. After trying out several places, I decided to sit very close to the front of the theatre, and then waited hours for the talk to begin.

The room filled up with a lot of architecture and planning students. When Jane came out, she was a small lady carrying a macrame type of knitting bag. She was the type of lady you would have felt comfortable talking to on the bus, someone that wore sensible shoes. With very clear speech, Jane spoke about the boring, cold, dull  tall concrete towers that surrounded Vancouver’s downtown, and noted that in a wet climate without a lot of winter sun, imagination was needed to create some architectural liveliness. You could feel the architects suck in their breath. Jane then said that architects had done a great disservice to one of her favourite plants, Hedera or ivy.

She noted with disdain that architects were forever ripping ivy off their concrete buildings, saying it would take over and destroy the concrete finishes. Nonsense, Jane said. Ivy is needed to hide the awful boring architecture that was being created in  high rise towers, and no piece of ivy was going to structurally destroy a building. Instead, she said ivy softened buildings, giving them a colouration and scale. In fact, she said that architects could learn a lot about ivy, and would do well to work with it.

There was a lot of grumbling from the architecture students when they left the lecture. But I was happy. Jane had spoken and had left us with a simple but profound idea. Design in the downtown  had to get better or else we needed to follow her advice and  invest in a lot of ivy.

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Years later I got to know Jane’s son Ned when my planning  work with the City of Vancouver  involved co-creating public spaces in concert with residents. We were opening a fabulous little neighbourhood greenway, the Avalon Neighbourhood Greenway located on Vancouver’s east side.

This was on the site of the last functioning dairy in Vancouver. We were going to host a community dinner with one long table running the whole length of the greenway . There would be locally sourced food and products fresh from the dairy with  the planners and engineers involved in the project serving the community. I invited Ned Jacobs, and asked if Jane could come if she was in town. Ned looked at me and slowly said, “This is just the kind of thing that Jane would like to attend, but I don’t think she will be able to make it”.

When Jane Jacobs passed away, we left a table setting open for her at the dinner table with over sixty community members celebrating a meal together outside, in the kind of public space that Jane championed.

Thank you Jane for the inspiration, the words, and for the ivy.

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