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A letter to Jane Jacobs

Written by: Ula Cryer

Dear Jane, it took me a long time to read it, interrupted by water research and all the related literature, but now I am through and very happy I took it up in the first place. It is “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” you wrote in 1961 I am thinking about. I was somewhat sceptical at first, wondering what could I learn from a book written almost 60 years ago about cities in America that differ from the European ones on so many levels. Boy, was I wrong! It is one of the most universal, timeless and in depth compendiums of knowledge about life in cities I’ve had in my hands and could easily be applied to any urbanised area in the world or its fair part I’ve had a chance to explore.

You must have spent years walking around the city, watching it closely, learning and understanding its complex issues. I myself am quite in tune with the workings of urban systems, or so I thought, but still you brought to my attention more intricacies that I have missed or intuitively felt but never formulated in my mind so clearly. I do not agree with everything you wrote though. The parks for instance, we need them today no matter if they are popular or not, to build cool air corridors and help reduce heat island effect. Those wilder ones give us a rare opportunity to be alone with nature on a daily basis, not just during weekends out of town. Nevertheless, with this read you gave me numerous enlightening moments and I put it back on the shelf together with the other most influential publications for my professional development.

We talked about the book here in the Lab, and I think what you described is in essence a natural city, lively, diverse and integrated on many levels, growing somewhat organically. Like in a garden, if one designs it, however beautifully, but without any regard to the environmental conditions and neighbouring ecosystems, one will spend a lot of money, time and effort on maintaining it and often may ruin the whole locality anyway. Whereas with a proper analysis and wise integration into the existing setting, the system will, in big part, maintain itself.

I wonder how did you feel when over the years many problems you were prophesying came to fruition over and over again in so many cities. I wonder if a city you were fostering is possible to build with the financing systems we have available in the world. I wonder if one town could choose a different way or would it require an altered financial framework on the national level? Possibly you have touched on that in your other books. This way or another, it would be beneficial for us all to make it mandatory for newly elected city governments to read “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” before they are allowed to start making decisions on its further development.

So I wanted to let you know that your legacy lives on and sparks up new lights every now and then, and although the majority of urban regions in the world still develop along the easiest path (intellectually) towards a slow strangulation, there are some signs of awakening on almost all continents.

posted on 03/11/2018