Why Jane's Theory?
Upon considering all of the ways in which I could summarize how I perceive the importance of urban design, I found myself hard pressed to create a title without a nod to Jane Jacobs. The summer before my first year at Virginia Tech, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities to prepare myself for my introductory urban planning courses. Along with Jacobs, William H. Whyte, Lewis Mumford, and Charles Montgomery all changed the way I view urban theory for the better, for they have shown me that the importance of studying planning from a psychological, individualized perspective cannot be overstated.
…What is Jane’s Theory?
Jane’s Theory can be summarized best by Jacobs’ own words.
“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”
-Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
To consider cities as a function of human behavior is to see urbanism in its truest form. Cities are a reflection not only of the culture and economic status of their hosts, but a reflection of the individuals who reside in them. After all, it is people who create cities, and people who put in the conscious effort to deem them home.
However, despite nation-wide efforts to improve cities (including the Main Street America program), these initiatives have led to an overwhelming displacement of the low income residents who had called these neighborhoods home for decades.
“Unfortunately, when choosing how to live or move, most of us are not as free as we think. Our options are strikingly limited, and they are defined by the planners, engineers, politicians, architects, marketers, and land speculators who imprint their own values on the urban landscape.”
-Charles Montgomery, Happy City
As a new resident of Alexandria, Virginia (hailing from Charlottesville, Virginia), I spent the majority of my summer exploring my new home. I was amazed at how much D.C. had to offer; all summer there were free music festivals, book discussions, cultural appreciation events, et cetera. Anything and everything relating to the celebration of culture could be found there. However, it became apparent to me that it was merely a façade in the neighborhood of Shaw. Located in Northwest, D.C., Shaw is becoming an increasingly popular location for recent college grads to settle into and enjoy city life. As I walked to a free music festival located in the heart of the neighborhood in a revitalized amphitheater space, I couldn’t help but notice what was going on outside of its gates. As the young attendees of the event enjoyed the music and expensive craft brews, longtime residents of Shaw sat outside their town homes perplexed at what was happening in their front yards. My suspicions were confirmed when NPR published an article in Mid-January 2017.
“For those longtime residents who remember Shaw as a riot-scarred neighborhood pockmarked with empty lots and plagued by crime, rather than the hub of African-American commercial and cultural activity experienced by the generation before them, at least some of the improved resources and services such as lighting, a new library and a renovated recreation center are welcome changes.
Dominic Moulden, who has been organizing residents in Shaw for 30 years and represents the tenants rights organization OneDC, said that doesn’t mean everyone benefits from the new amenities.
‘If you can’t spend $100 to eat, $5 or $7 for coffee, you can’t buy anything in your own neighborhood,’ he said.
Peterson puts it this way: Poor African-Americans in Shaw had been asking for improved services for years, and it’s only now that white people with money and influence have moved in that they’re getting them.”
This realization sent me into a frenzy of considering the way I viewed Charlottesville. Having lived there for 17 years, I always considered Charlottesville the best place on earth. From the downtown mall to Bodo’s Bagels, I was raised by the strength of my community relationships and my sense of belonging. I benefited from my friendships with local architects sketching in Mudhouse, picking their brains about anything and everything related to planning. My experience at Piedmont Virginia Community College was nothing less than spectacular, I was highly involved in the local music scene, and the University of Virginia’s radio station. I had a place in my community, and I truly believed everyone else did too, but upon examining my own experiences, I realized I was just as guilty as the attendees of Shaw’s festivals. The same exact process of gentrification had occurred in a neighborhood called Belmont in Charlottesville; free festivals, expensive, charming, renovated homes, experimental restaurants– all of the warning signs blatant.
“That was the way it had always worked, but things were starting to change. The house lust gripping the nation as a whole had hit Charlottesville as well. Everybody knew you couldn’t go wrong with real estate. It was guaranteed money, especially if you found the bargains, and in Charlottesville that meant Belmont, where the average house assessment rose 35 percent in 2003, compared with 13 percent in the rest of the city.”
-The C-Ville, 2012
Some may believe that this is an inevitable consequence of urban progress, but I want to challenge people to think differently. It is the responsibility of urban planners to build spaces that are built for communities, not for subgroups– for people, not particular demographics. We need to be aware of our surroundings and listen to scholars such as Ronald R. Hannawho recognized the beginnings of gentrification in Shaw in 2011, or Jane Jacobs who dedicated a large portion of The Death and Life of Great American Cities to community interaction from a street perspective.
True urban planning requires empathy, and this is a skill that I believe has the potential to transform metropolitan areas into inclusive spaces for all, regardless of race, class, gender, or income.