Monday, July 30, 2007

Ask Jane Jacobs

Introducing yet another feature on Hyde Park Progress, to appear from time to time, dealing specifically with issues of urban planning and design: Ask Jane Jacobs.

Hyde Parkers seem to know a lot about Daniel Burnham and his 1909 plan for the city, and folks like Jens Jensen and Frederick Law Olmsted. But, given the general antiquarian outlook of The Establishment, this backward looking orientation has not kept up with the most progressive thinking about how cities operate.

Which is why we think the discussion on change in Hyde Park-Kenwood and the South Side needs a firmer theoretical basis. The basic impulse driving Establishment obstructionism is NIMBYism, akin to that found in suburbs (and I repeatedly make this point, the subtext being that Hyde Park is NOT a suburb -- at least it hasn't been one since it was annexed by the City over 100 years ago...). Beyond that, Establishment thinking tends to cling to a line of thought going back through urban critics Lewis Mumford and Ebenezer Howard which tends to be more interested in gardens than in cities.

Jane Jacobs rejected core principles of this tradition. She did so while also providing one of the earliest and most cutting critiques of Urban Renewal. Her credentials as an urban liberal are therefore impeccable. Taking as her model Greenwich Village in New York City, she produced a set of analytic concepts for understanding what a city is that undergird much of the New Urbanism. She understood cities first and foremost as economies that operate on a local scale. This fundamental perception is one that is sorely lacking in current Establishment discourse.

Like Hyde Parkers, she wanted to 'save' her neighborhood, and she did. But she approached the problem empirically, rather than seeking to impose utopian ideals on a messy reality. We need more of Ms. Jacob's sensible and urbane sensibility.

That's why she is our Hero, and we will be asking her spirit for guidance as local issues arise in the neighborhood.

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