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  • Michael Mehaffy

IMCL 2023 will celebrate Jane Jacobs and other pathfinders - and moreover, continue their work

With the start of the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference in one week, thought leaders will gather to advance the reforms begun by Jacobs, Alexander, and others - inclduing the former Prince of Wales


A sampling of the 28 plenary speakers and over 50 breakout speakers representing leading research institutions, NGOs, government agencies and businesses, who will assemble from every continent except Antarctica at the 59th International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conference in Poundbury and Dorchester.


POUNDBURY, UK - Approximately 150 researchers, NGO heads, government officials, professionals and citizen activists will gather here in just one week for the opening of the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference. Many of them acknowledge explicit debts to past reformers like Jane Jacobs, Christopher Alexander, Kevin Lynch, and others. But more than simply venerating these thought leaders, many of the IMCL participants have explicitly committed to assessing, revising where necessary, and actually implementing the popular reforms of these seminal figures - at a time when this is so urgently needed.


They also commit to studying the deeper lessons of Poundbury, and its visionary founder - a remarkable (if too often unrecognized) thought leader in his own right. Poundbury shows -- as does a whole generation of other similar new neighborhoods and towns -- that is IS possible to build successful places that their residents find more beautiful, healthier, more ecological, and more equitable. The point is not to achieve perfection, or to pretend that perfection has been achieved. The point is to study these living laboratories all around us, for their lessons learned and the ways forward that they offer us. This is an inspiring recognition. And it is the mission of the IMCL, since its founding in 1985.


A number of this year's IMCL attendees knew and worked with Jacobs, Alexander, and the other key reformers of their generation. (These include, of course, the former Prince of Wales.) They are well-positioned to cut through the simplified accounts of these figures and their ideas, and assess how to advance into implementation on the solid foundation of their work -- whether confirmed, updated, revised, or otherwise taken forward.


One of the participating organizations is Strong Towns, a remarkably effective US-based organization that has persuasively demonstrated how the failures of "modern" planning practices translate into highly damaging "externality costs" -- including economic costs to municipal governments. Strong Towns offers a number of tools and strategies for municipalities, citizen activists and other stakeholders to make effective reforms. Their founder, Chuck Marohn, will be a keynote speaker at the IMCL conference.


The Strong Towns website states flatly that "Strong Towns Is Jane Jacobs in Action". From the web page:


There is a strain of thought that suggests that, if only it had been Jane Jacobs in charge instead of Robert Moses, we would have gotten sidewalks and transit instead of highways and interchanges. This thinking does a massive disservice to Jacobs and her brilliant insights on cities.


Very explicitly, Jacobs embraced the block-level chaos of cities as a feature, not a flaw. She explained how successful neighborhoods are organic creations, how they grow incrementally out of the actions of many different individuals. She was a fierce critic of centralized planning, large transformative projects, and programs unconstrained by economic reality.


We could say that Jane Jacobs was very Strong Towns, but we all know who influenced whom.


Lest anyone think that Jacobs' influence only extended to North America, another IMCL plenary speaker will be Nicholas Boys Smith, the Chair of the UK Government's Office for Place, and founder of the walkability resource NGO, Create Streets. He wrote an insightful piece for the UK journal Building Design titled “We now have the evidence that proves Jane Jacobs was right – it’s time we started acting on it.”


Not only do we have the mounting evidence for the importance of these urban reforms in meeting ecological and social goals, we also understand far better how human beings are impacted by their environments -- an exciting and possibly transformative body of research. We are finally beginning to "connect the dots" between human and ecological health, professional practice (and frankly, malpractice), environmental character and placemaking, and human well-being and happiness. And we can see why many citizens are increasingly angry and frustrated with professional insularity, and why they are increasingly demanding thoroughgoing reforms. And the roadmap to actually achieving those reforms is getting clearer.

From Boys Smith's insightful essay:


Jane Jacobs’ subject was, as she put it, “the ecology of cities”. She argued that the “kind of a problem a city is” was one of “organised complexity” and that certain organic, jumbled-up unplanned factors tended to be associated with more prosperous, busier, healthier and happier neighbourhoods. She argued that “the processes that occur in cities are not arcane, capable of being understood only by experts. They can be understood by almost anybody.”


The Death and Life of Great American Cities is predominantly a book of theory, example and anecdote. That is not a criticism. When Jacobs was writing over 60 years ago, the evidence did not exist. But now it does. And we can use it to “back test” Jane Jacobs.


Thanks to mobile phones, to QGIS software, to hedonic modelling, to the relentless march of geo-located “big data” into our lives, we can now tell a far more confident story about the probable relationships between urban morphology and movement, between design and density with human outcomes. There are hundreds of statistical studies and dozens of books. I have even written a few myself.


The data is never absolute. We are not automatons controlled by our environment. But there are clear and consistent slopes in the neighbourhood data from rich and poor, old and young, north and south.


Jacobs praised walkable neighbourhoods with a rich diversity of uses, not sterile “zoning” into places to live over there and shop over there. She was right. Studies show that homes near to neighbourhood shops are worth more, that homes in more walkable neighbourhoods are worth many tens of thousands of pounds more – other factors held equal – and that shops in walkable neighbourhoods generate up to 80% more sales. Such coherently complex neighbourhoods are also associated with more walking, better health and cleaner air. 50 out of 64 academic studies find an association between compact walkable neighbourhoods with positive health outcomes.


Jacobs praised the street with doors and windows that faced the public highway, rather than turning in on themselves. She praised active facades. She was right. Urban blocks with “clear backs and fronts” are associated with lower crime, particularly in British and Australian studies.


In a study that Create Streets conducted of every neighbourhood in six British cities, neighbourhoods with unclear block patterns were consistently associated with higher indices of multiple deprivation. And yet prize-winning estate regenerations built in the last decade still muddle up the private and public, running back gardens into public walkways.


Jacobs argued that “the processes that occur in cities are not arcane, capable of being understood only by experts. They can be understood by almost anybody.” She had a horror of the “visible ego”, “look what I made” approach to design. She was right about this too.


And this is why we have found a very consistent relationship between the places people say, in stated preference surveys, they prefer, and the evidence on land values and on public health and wellbeing.


So to end at the beginning, this is why it matters that Jane Jacobs’ work so imperfectly influences the world we are creating and stewarding today. And why, if we wish truly to celebrate Jane Jacobs, we should stop creating what she termed “anticity” projects, start restitching our cities, tame the dual carriageways, stop dumping drive-to cul-de-sacs into fields, and create not towers in the park but beautiful, walkable and varied streets and squares, plots and blocks.


Because ultimately, we are all humans. And we all need our home, our place, our neighbourhood as we make our brief way through the world.


If you are interested in attending the 59th International Making Cities Livable conference, you are encouraged to sign up soon, as less than 10% of seats remain, and accommodations are increasingly difficult to find. For more information, visit https://www.imcl.online/2023-poundbury .

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