The real Jane Jacobs

On Tuesday, July 26, American-Canadian self-taught journalist, author, activist, innovator and champion of livable cities, Jane Jacobs, headlined the discussion night at Green Beanery’s second Grounds for Thought event. Long-time colleagues Max Allen – a producer for the CBC Radio program, Ideas, and the co-founder and curator of the Textile Museum of Canada – held forth alongside Lawrence Solomon – who co-founded Energy Probe Research Foundation with Jane Jacobs in the late 1970s, the organization that owns Green Beanery.

As you might expect, there were descriptions that reflected the Jane Jacobs of popular legend: her newfangled thinking on the use of primary space, for example, was to be found in her own home, where there was no separation between the kitchen and living room. Although an open-plan layout is common today, at the time this was not the case. Jane had deliberately turned the main floor of her old house – built for a different era when servants were not permitted in certain parts of the home – into essentially a common area: a very modern idea that has since become a norm.

That glimpse of Jane in private is the Jane we have come to know in public as the revolutionary voice of mixed-use development and a relentless battler for "the good city," which she articulated as the aphorism: "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

What is less known are Jane’s views on such issues as privatization – Jane was in favour of privatizing the TTC, Via Rail and Canada Post, all public entities reliable for their terrible service and high rates when Jane launched the consumer advocacy organization, Consumer Policy Institute, in the mid-1990s. Jane also believed in competition, respected property rights and was "allergic to expropriation," but was not, as some think, anti-development and anti-change: she simply had no desire for centrally planned solutions.

Illuminating Jane’s more surprising perspectives, Lawrence Solomon remembers Jane as principled, fearless and free of ideology. Her rigorous and wide-ranging intellect makes guessing "what would Jane say?" an impossibility even for those who knew her well. Jane sought specific solutions to specific problems, she was all about process.

Although he has wondered himself many times, "What would Jane say?", as Max Allen told the Grounds for Thought audience: "You never knew because she said so many things you had never thought of before."

For more on Jane’s lesser known perspectives, read Lawrence Solomon’s Grounds for Thought discussion notes here.

Max Allen is the author of Ideas that Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. He also produced the 1979 Massey Lectures featuring Jane Jacobs. [Pictured above at the Grounds for Thought Jane Jacobs night in sunglasses]

Lawrence Solomon was a colleague of Jane Jacobs at Energy Probe Research Foundation for almost two decades. [Pictured holding microphone]

Self-taught thinker: Jane Jacobs dropped out of Columbia University's School of General Studies after two years and never looked back. Unencumbered by planning orthodoxy, Jane formulated her views on urban living from the ground-up. How did she do it? She got out on the street, walked around, observed the "ballet of sidewalks" and what made a city good and workable for people by being a person living in and moving around the city.

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