Reclaiming the heart of the city

Urban planning theories are meaningless without citizens involved in their community.

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When she was a young woman, Jane Jacobs used to have imaginary conversations with such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Explaining herself to two of history's greatest minds helped clarify her own thinking. The technique apparently worked wonders, because Ms. Jacobs, who died last month, was a writer and social critic whose landmark book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), changed the way the world looks at vast urban centers.

Outwardly, Jacobs seemed to lead a rather prosaic life. She was a housewife and mother who lived above a candy store in New York's Greenwich Village. But what she saw each day as she shopped, communed with her neighbors, and walked her children to school, affected her deeply. The rhythms of city life sowed many seeds in her lifetime of work and contemplative thought. When she sat down to write, her observations were more accessible and penetrating than those of many of the urban theorists of her time or since.

"What makes a successful city?" she routinely asked Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. She must have found the inspiration she sought, for Jacobs arrived at a groundbreaking formula that embraced the need for mixed-use buildings, narrow streets, and a neighborhood population rich in density and diversity. If cities are easy to get around, and each block is chock-full of shops and things to do, she observed, they will inevitably take on a life of their own.

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Her ideas were heretical at a time in our nation when master builders and architects held sway, insisting that gleaming skyscrapers and cold academic principles of design were all that were needed to breathe life into American cities. These titans must have looked ridiculous sparring with the outspoken woman in unstylish glasses who spoke fondly of pubs, laundromats, and places where children could play hopscotch. To this day, architects the world over still debate the merits of Jacobs's work. And remarkably, some of her principles are guiding the restoration of the former World Trade Center site.

For the past three years, we have been in the position of having numerous imaginary conversations with Jane Jacobs, our virtual mentor, as we researched, wrote, and produced an upcoming PBS film documentary series, "Edens Lost & Found," on the renewal of four American cities. This is an especially significant time to revisit Jacobs's ideas. Currently 80 percent of the US population lives in urban centers built with little understanding of their natural environment and insufficient consideration of the need for open space, public parks, clean air, and clean water.

These tarnished landscapes have a negative effect on public health and the art of community. After decades of neglect, the tide is turning. Citizen leaders have activated tens of thousands of volunteers; catalyzed the ingenuity of forward-thinking professionals; and motivated architects, engineers, urban planners, and government officials. Edens are being reborn.

Daily, as we headed into fringe neighborhoods to document the work of ordinary people who are acting from the heart and gut, we couldn't help wondering what Jacobs must have thought about the new buzzwords, such as "integrated resource management" and "sustainable urban ecosystems." These days, it's not enough to have short, walkable blocks and a small grocery on every second or third corner. The restoration of American cities also depends on a healthy mix of everything from proper management of fresh water, green building practices, ample public parks, and green space to available mass transportation, clean air, and community involvement.

From time to time, as we were tempted to fall head over heels in love with arcane urban theories, we could almost hear Jacobs clucking at us from deep inside: Heavy-sounding theories are fine, but they are meaningless unless citizen activists come together to help create thriving neighborhoods. Thus, we pointed our lenses at ordinary people such as Darrell Clarke, who has worked for 17 years to bring about the first east-west light rail line to cross Los Angeles in 50 years; and Michael Howard, who turned a badly contaminated, six-acre brown field into a children's nature preserve - Eden Place - with the help of impassioned volunteers from his low-income Chicago community, Fuller Park.

There is a revolution going on in cities across the country. Neighborhoods and communities are no longer waiting for help from Washington. They are rolling up their sleeves and working together to reshape their urban environments. Their actions give hope to us all. Most of the people we've profiled in the past three years probably do not even know who Jane Jacobs was, but Jacobs surely knew them.

Harry Wiland and Dale Bell are executive producers of the PBS series "Edens Lost & Found: How Ordinary Citizens are Restoring Our Great American Cities" (www.edenslostandfound.org) and authors of a book with the same title.

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