Urban Activism where is Edinburgh’s Jane Jacobs?

Jane Jacobs, was best know for her activism in New York, over Urban planning and her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). The book argues that the new ‘urban renewal’ did not respect the needs of most city-dwellers, but also introduced concepts that we now regard as standard within the planning of a city, such as the value of ‘social capital’ and concepts such as ‘Eyes on the street’ – as Jacobs says –

First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.

Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jacobs came to prominence for organising grassroots efforts to protect existing neighbourhoods from slum clearance in New York City. Her opposition to Robert Moses and his plans to overhaul and gentrify Greenwich Village. Edinburgh residents of the Old Town and surrounding might know that feeling – one were gentrification has given way to hotels and cheap student accommodation – chipping away at the residents that live in the area year in year out. The residents that make up the communities that are being squeezed out by more lacklustre developments that have no heart, no connection to the surrounding and rips out the local community, social cohesion and green spaces in our city. 

As a mother and a writer who criticised experts in the male-dominated field of urban planning, Jacobs endured scorn from established figures. She did not have a college degree or any formal training in urban planning, and was criticised for lacking such credentials and being imprecise. Still this is how ‘professionals’ in the planning departments, and developers who fear people who will stand up to them like to smear local activists. They may have little formal qualifications, but they get ‘community’ in ways that developers who want to drop hotels or student accommodation into spaces that groan under the strain of squashing the communities they suck the life out of will never understand.

Worth a read on Jane Jacobs’s life of Urban Activism:

Retracing a Lifetime of Urban Activism Through Jane Jacob’s Last Interview

Image of Jane Jacobs: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ-62-137838


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