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Opinion: Jane Jacobs’ vision lost among Vancouver’s high towers

Occasionally I wonder what the late Jane Jacobs would have thought of Vancouver’s extreme urban makeover. Two words come to mind: not much.
Photo Dan Toulgoet

Occasionally I wonder what the late Jane Jacobs would have thought of Vancouver’s extreme urban makeover. Two words come to mind: not much.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, the American/Canadian urbanist authored the enormously influential 1961 book The Life and Death of Great American Cities. In 1968 she led protests against silverback New York developer Robert Moses’ plan to put an expressway through Manhattan. In successfully putting a hex on Moses’ pet project, the author and activist also called into question the sacred cow of North American culture: the automobile.

This heresy, and Jacobs’ concept about “eyes on the street” — of engaged urban-dwellers watching out for each other from street-friendly developments — didn’t go far with paternalistic experts of the time. But in time her ideas moved from grassroots radicalism to received wisdom. In the ’90s, local city planners had embraced her tenets so enthusiastically, and put them into practice so mindfully, that their admiring colleagues in the U.S. pegged the new urban paradigm as “Vancouverism.”

Some Jacobs fans have used her ideas to justify the city’s current densification as the smartest ecological alternative to suburban commuting, while others have used them to bash the local monoculture of all-glass, high-rise condos.

Actually, Jacobs insisted on “four generators of density,” including a range of buildings of varying ages and height with mixed uses. Vancouver’s current densification tends to emphasize two variable above others: newness and height. (The peculiar arc of Vancouverism became apparent when the city’s former planning director, Larry Beasley, was hired in 2008 to plan the waterfront of the futuristic Arab metropolis, Abu Dhabi.)

Former Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan believed that the city’s growing population wasn’t just hemmed up by mountains and shorelines, but by some of Jacob’s more liberal-progressive ideas. He described his satori moment to Georgia Straight contributor Daniel Wood in 2012: “I realized I wanted to bury Jane Jacobs under concrete.”

Sullivan himself was buried in Vision Vancouver’s landslide election in 2008. The irony is that Vision Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson has inherited the high-rise mantle from his predecessor, and his party now appears even more beholden to developers than the NPA.

A return to Jacobs’ original vision is overdue, says urban studies theorist Richard Florida. “This rush to density, this idea that density creates economic growth,” is mistaken, he said at the 20th Congress for the New Urbanism in West Palm Beach. “It’s the creation of real, walkable urban environments that stir the human spirit. Skyscraper communities are vertical suburbs, where it is lonely at the top. The kind of density we want is a ‘Jane Jacobs density.’”

As architect, planner, and Courier contributor Michael Geller recently observed, “The public often confuses density and building height. In fact, it is possible to achieve much higher densities in four storey buildings than in the 12 storey buildings found in Kerrisdale.”

Elizabeth Murphy, a private sector project manager and a former property development officer for the City of Vancouver’s Housing and Properties Department and for B.C. Housing, cites Jacobs’ dictum that “new ideas need old buildings.” Adaptively reusing older buildings helps ensure the results are “about community and not just commodity,” she noted in a recent Courier interview.

“Your creative class, your new businesses, your first time homeowners, your families that are trying to get into the market — those are the ones who need the older buildings,” Murphy added. (Only recently have city staff awakened to local neighbourhoods under the wrecking ball, as astronomical real estate prices incentivize turning character homes into landfill.)  

The young “cultural creatives” — so essential to Richard Florida’s model of “spiky” urban centres that incubate artistic innovation and technical invention — are being priced right out of Vancouver’s real estate and rental market. Are global trust fund kids, absentee owners, and empty nesters likely to fill the creative vacuum?

Vancouver has the dubious distinction of having both Canada’s poorest postal code and a quarter of its condos empty or occupied by non-residents. Although much of this extends beyond civic control into the netherworld of globally mobile capital, it’s safe to say that if Jacobs had lived long enough to see what’s happening to the city that initially embraced her ideas, she wouldn’t endorse either the NPA or Vision.