Thursday, August 2, 2012

Jane Jacobs On The Importance Of Old Buildings

Jane Jacobs in NYC, 1961
I'm finally reading a Jane Jacobs book for the first time. It's her big one: The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They say it's one of the giant landmarks in the history of urban planning. She wrote it back in 1961, overturning a lot of old conventional planning ideas — like, say, that demolishing an entire residential neighbourhood to start from scratch is a great idea. She spent a lot of her time fighting to save communities from being turned into housing projects or expressways — first in New York City and then here. She moved to Toronto in '68 — in part because we're awesome and in part because she was worried about her sons getting Drafted into the Vietnam War. She arrived in T.O. just in time to help lead the famous fight against the Spadina Expressway, which would have leveled huge swaths of the Annex and Chinatown.

At one point in the book, she lays out the four conditions she thinks are necessary for a diverse and thriving neighbourhood. Essentially: short blocks, mixed use, a dense enough population and a mixture of old and new buildings. She spends a whole chapter explaining each one, but here's a short passage about old buildings that particularly stuck me:

"If you look about, you will see that only operations that are well established, high-turnover, standardized or heavily subsidized can afford, commonly, to carry the costs of new construction. Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighbourhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings, good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts—studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and arts supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions—these go into old buildings. Perhaps more significant, hundreds of ordinary enterprises, necessary to the safety and public life of streets and neighborhoods, and appreciated for their convenience and personal quality, can make out successfully in old buildings, but are inexorably slain by the high overhead of new construction.

"As for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

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You can buy The Death and Life of Great Americans Cities here. Or borrow it from the Toronto Public Library here. Or read more samples from it on Google Books here.

And you can learn a little more about the Spadina Expressway in Agatha Barc's post for blogTO here.

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