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Who the Hell is Jane Jacobs...?

On the anniversary of Jane Jacobs' birth (May 4th, 1916), we speak to journalist, researcher and author, Deborah Talbot (pictured), also local resident of Wivenhoe (just outside Colchester, UK for the benefit of international Jane's Walk friends), on first encounters with Jacobs the activist and radical thinker, on rediscovering Jacobs through writing about her, and on Jacobs' relevance today and to our town...

What was your first encounter with the ideas of Jane Jacobs, and what was her impact on you?

Ever since I was a teenager, I had a somewhat romantic attachment to big cities like London and New York, so I'd pretty much always been aware of her as a figure that wrote about cities. But it was when I was researching gentrification and racial exclusion in night-time spaces in Brixton – and that later got turned into my first book - that I really started to grapple seriously with her ideas. While Jacobs is not credited with saying much about gentrification until later, she was very aware that what gives cities their life and vitality was diversity. She was also against inequality and saw the detrimental cultural and economic impact of cleansing cities of the less affluent. I certainly feel her ideas were a forerunner of writers like Sharon Zukin, Mike Davis and Loïc Wacquant. They were also very influential in my own early ideas of the city.

Was there a moment at which you knew this was a woman who would make a permanent imprint on your thinking, and if so, how?

I've always been impressed by rebellious women, and she was undoubtedly one of these. If you think about it, here was a woman who came of age in one of the most repressive periods of the US – the depression, the Second World War, McCarthyism and 1950s America where what was expected for women, particularly middle-class women, was to be a stay-at-home mother. Jacobs had none of it. She marched off to New York during the depression, fought her way into journalism, got married, became an activist, had three children, hired a nanny and continued to write for the rest of her life. And as with many women who were outliers at that time, her writing and perspectives are very original.

Which of Jacobs’ ideas would you say have particularly influenced you and why?

It's hard to know where to start. I'm impressed by her absolute belief in democracy and the democratic process in planning. I think her ideas on how diversity (of people, lifestyles, businesses and culture) fuels economic growth are incredibly radical and right, and contradict a lot of the nonsense talked about right now about immigration and multiculturalism by Trump and Brexit leaders.

What has always influenced me about her ideas through is the power of close observation as a means of guiding action. It was her ability to take in how people really lived that strongly influenced her writing and activism. It’s a small idea but extremely powerful.

Think about it. For Jacobs, it is not the big ideologies that change things – except perhaps for the worse when we think about her conflicts with the slash and burn city planners – but people living everyday lives and being permitted to act on their surroundings in accordance with what they understand and how they want to live. Jacobs strongly believed that we know what we want - we know how cities and towns should be organised. What I’d add these days is that we are so often persuaded that we want something we actually don’t, and that’s a loss. Part of what is so great about Jane's Walks around the world is to encourage people to look closely at their environment and to understand and analyse what they see, which is incredibly positive.

Jacobs' body of work continues to have global appeal, but she also faces criticism at times for romanticising the city and particularly celebrating ideas that are seen by some in practice to have contributed to gentrification. How valid do you regard such criticism to be?

As I’ve already mentioned, in her later writing (for example, Dark Ages Ahead), Jacobs did talk about gentrification and was against the idea that the less affluent should be driven out of neighbourhoods. She noted ironically that, no sooner were they gone, and along with them their small businesses, shops, services and so on, then the more affluent would start complaining about their community becoming less interesting and lively. I think you could look at any gentrified neighbourhood and say that her observation was true.

At the same time, I’d reject the idea that cultural innovation and ‘bourgeois amenities’, just because they tend to be the forerunners of spiralling house prices (sometimes because property developers fund them), is a bad thing. New cafes, theatres, restaurants, shops, art, music and all those kinds of amenities create cultural goods are part of what makes life worth living. The real problems we face are land values and rising property prices and rents.

Jacobs noted that one of the reasons particular areas become inflated in price was because they are precisely the kind of housing people want – spacious houses and flats surrounded by plenty of amenities and well-connected transport links. We could add jobs and business opportunities into that mix. And there is a massive shortage of this type of housing. So one solution might be to build more housing and settlements that people actually want, rather than forcing people to endlessly compromise. An immediate priority is decent, spacious and innovative social housing.

So where would you say her weaknesses lie, in application to our world today?

No writer’s ideas should be preserved in aspic. One new trend Jacobs could not have anticipated was the rise of digital connectivity. I don’t think we are anywhere close to understanding how that may impact how we live, including geography. But if we can work, learn and do a fair amount of socialising through purely digital means, it should force us to think about how we really want to live – not least the ecological consequences of human settlements.

This is something I’m thinking about right now, particularly in relation to Covid-19. For example, life in cities is lived outdoors with others. The vitality of cities – the economic dynamism and innovation that characterises them – is a product of human sociability. Yet what happens when you can't go outdoors? Now, Covid-19 may be temporary. But what if it is the first of many crises, economic, viral or ecological?

I love cities. I love London. It was my home and is imprinted on my mind and emotional landscape. But in my worst moments, I wonder if it is a disappearing past – a way of living no longer fit for the life that is to come. I am deeply frustrated by rural life and its limits (I live in Wivenhoe, which is admittedly mostly 'fantasy rural'). Yet, I am deeply thankful during the lockdown that I am here, with a garden, quiet walks and with access to farms that deliver food. I obviously would be going quietly insane were it not for the internet. But like many, I need to think about the implications of this pandemic. We do need to address how we live as a society. Or maybe we will just go back to ‘normality’ and forget it ever happened.

In 2019 you authored a book entitled ‘Who the Hell is Jane Jacobs?’ as part of a series looking at renowned writers. Can you say a little about how this came about?

I'm on a forum for women in journalism and two of my colleagues – Alice Bowden and Sarah Tomley - said they were setting up an independent publisher for accessible and educational books on key thinkers. I thought that was a great idea and volunteered to spend a summer writing one on Jane Jacobs. I liked the format because we were asked to tell the life story of the thinker, their ideas and how those ideas were, and could be, applied. And it seemed to me to be an incredible opportunity to make Jacobs' ideas accessible because in the UK urbanism/architecture/planning is a rarefied and elite profession that most people associate with ugly buildings and unwanted planning applications. I wanted to show urbanism as something everyone can and should be, involved in.

Has your thinking about Jane Jacobs evolved as a consequence of writing the book?

Before I wrote the book, I hadn’t really sat down and read her writing on economics, which she regarded as her most important contribution. It blew me away. Suddenly I was understanding the phenomena of Trump and Brexit in an entirely new way, and started looking into both why cities were so affluent and the nature of geographical marginalisation - particularly what the rural economy is (or could be). I’ve yet to find the time to write more about this.

For readers who want to understand her ideas on economics more, which direction would you point them in?

They could read my book, where I write about her ideas on economics and how they have been applied to current economic and political contexts. I point to other references in the book.

Jacobs wrote about cities, not towns, and the rules of one don’t necessarily translate straightforwardly onto the other. Which of Jacobs’ ideas, if any, do you feel might be helpful in understanding a town such as Colchester?

There's definitely a difference in size and density of population so that those creative encounters which give rise to immense innovation and economic growth are significantly fewer. But researchers have shown that proximity to a global city, such as Colchester's proximity to London, has great economic potential. And by that, I don't mean commuters but rather the possibility of commerce. But what that needs are mechanisms to make the geographical distance for commercial transactions less; in Colchester’s case, interconnected travel and better digital infrastructures and skills. The lockdown might prompt some speedy learning in the latter.

There is a hesitation here to do culturally innovative projects. People still complain about Firstsite leading to the loss of the bus station. Yet, under the right leadership, it has been inspirational and inclusive. DIY countercultural innovation seems to make people in the council nervous because there’s always been a history of preferring to work with big, established suppliers. There’s an absence of population diversity which is not helpful to new ways of thinking and doing - even along gender lines – so it is a bit behind the times.

There is an odd preoccupation in Colchester with big fantasy housing projects such as the garden villages, which rely on the rather shaky foundations of commuter money. And there is not enough attention paid to the preconditions for economic sustainability and the small changes that could make a significant difference – reviving a derelict building for an indoor market or studio space, widening pavements, reducing traffic, better buses. The Hythe is a potentially huge cultural asset that other localities would jump on, though you wouldn’t think that to look at it. But all this is unsurprising since urbanism is not culturally embedded in the UK and particularly not in government.

Austerity has not helped at all, and nor has the predatory nature of big developers in the area. I’m sure people feel utterly disempowered to assert what they really want, let alone which political party is capable of helping to deliver it. We need less deference and more people like the irrepressible Rosie Pearson of CAUSE, who is intelligently resisting and refusing to be put down.

Finally, what is central in the imagination of Colchester and its surrounds is the rural. We definitely don’t make the most of that, either in experimental agriculture, rural start-ups or eco-tourism. The rural in Essex needs some placemaking activity of the sort they do in areas of Suffolk. That's definitely not Jane Jacobs, but we can certainly apply her methodology to any geographical location.

Finally, one reason why everybody should pick up Death and Life for the first time?

Because it is the one book that educates and inspires people to trust in their own observations of the place in which they live - and find the courage to change it.

Deborah Talbot is a journalist and researcher specialising in urban and rural development and sustainability. She’s written four books on urban cultures and economies, including Regulating the Night: Race, Culture and Exclusion in the Making of the Night-time Economy (2007) and Who the Hell is Jane Jacobs? You can find her on Twitter @DeborahHTalbot.

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