With Your Coffee

University of Vermont Alumni House, 61 Summit Street.

Happy weekend and happy Preservation Month! And, Happy Mother’s Day! I’ve rounded up recent links for your weekend reading.

Have a lovely weekend, and hopefully spring is on its way to you. Cheers!

What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

PRESS RELEASE*

Oakland CA, 15 April 2010 — The Center for the Living City and New Village Press have partnered to publish a compendium of original essays that carries forward the late Jane Jacobs’ passion for urban activism and democratic participation. What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs looks with keen eyes at the present and the future of our communities through the unique views and insights of more than thirty respected activists, scholars, economists, planners, and public figures around the world whose work has been inspired by Jacobs.

Urbanist-activist Jane Jacobs is best known for her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. By contrasting the master plans of developers and policymakers of her time with her observations of the lively, self-organized nature of city life, Jacobs revolutionized the discipline of urban planning and expanded the boundaries of community participation.

The contributing authors of What We See further Jacobs’ genius of everyday wisdom through their own creative and diverse visions of socially just, environmentally sound, and economically prosperous communities. In addition to its 33 essays, the book includes a study guide to promote critical debate and a shared understanding of the challenges and possibilities of creating change in our communities.

What We See has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, which also funded Jane Jacobs in writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities fifty years ago. Additional funders of What We See include Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Zeidler Family, Greg O’Connell, Martha Jean Shuttleworth, and The Newburgh Institute.

REVIEW*

Planners, preservationists, and the like inherently know that Jane Jacobs’ lessons and theories written in The Death and Life of Great American Cities have been true and relevant to all people and cities since before she put words to paper and will continue to be applicable to our modern era and beyond. However, Death and Life is not Jacobs’ only work and it is not a book that everyone will voluntarily choose to read; as essential and thrilling as it is, it can be dense.

The contributors to What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs translates these lessons from Jane Jacobs in manners that will appeal to planners, academics, scholars of Jane, or those who have heard in passing. What We See is about opening our eyes as communities. (Appropriately, the introduction is titled, “Eyes Wide Open.”) The book is part tribute to Jane Jacobs, but more importantly it is meant to keep her lessons current and to bring them to new levels, across all disciplines.

While the range from planner to any community member is a wide group of readers, the reach is possible because of the organization of the book: six sections with an average of five essays that vary in tone and writing style. These essays are written by renowned professionals in their respective fields, some who knew Jane, some who met her once, and some who have simply been influenced by her work. Some of these essays are written in the first person point-of-view, which seems more approachable to those new to Jane. Others are more philosophical and probably more appealing to students of planning. The editors have taken great care to properly group the essays and bring the reader through each section; however, this is not to say that a reader must read the sections in order. When in doubt of the section’s overall theme, the reader can easily refer back to the introduction, in which the sections are explained beyond their titles.

A disclaimer to readers is that What We See can be dense at times; it is not the type of book you want to read right after final exams end. However, a topic of such magnitude and influence warrants thorough discussion from all angles. True to the book’s function, there is a study guide at the end of the book, meant for communities, classrooms, any group interested. There are questions for every essay, but they do not necessarily only apply to that essay or chapter. In other words, some questions would suffice for conversation starters, even outside the context of the book. What We See may not have been the quickest read, but it did turn the gears of my brain and introduce new perspectives. As always, the parallels between historic preservation are amazing, yet not surprising. Anyone interested in quality of life and how communities function, will benefit from reading and discussing What We See. So get comfortable, get into a planning and community mood, and get ready to think and learn from and see how others learn from one of the greatest urbanists and activists of the modern age. Whether you read one essay or one section at a time or read the entire book from cover to cover, the chapters are thought-provoking and well worth the read.

To read more the book, visit the What We See website. To read more about Jane Jacobs read a mini-biography of Jane on the Project for Public Spaces. Buy the book here.

* The press release is from the New Village Press website, while the review is written by Kaitlin O’Shea.

Buzzword: Sustainability

We all love to talk about sustainability, green building, environmentalism, recycling, hybrid cars, walkability, local businesses, and so much more. All of these are buzzwords in the media and when you can talk about them, you’re considered hip (in some circles) or at least on top of the latest news in the green generation. And while it’s easy to casually bring up one of the aforementioned topics in a conversation and to focus your passionate discussion on one or another, sustainability is about more than that, more than just one of those. It’s a complicated issue, but one that makes so much sense when considering our future, ours and generations after us.

Maybe everyone else already consciously grasped this, but I feel as though my understanding of the web of sustainability is improving by taking a Community Design through Sustainability class this semester. It’s a class offered through the Community Development and Applied Economics department, but it’s an elective for many so there are about half environmental studies (and related fields) students, a handful of us preservationists, and a few other departments scattered in there.  During the first or second class, I had a moment when I thought to myself, “Wow, I live in Vermont.” Those who have lived here longer than a few weeks talked about living machines, cow power, towns without cars, wind farms, and so many environmentally friendly aspects of development. I, on the other hand, like the trained preservationist that I am, spoke of walkability and diversity in stores and living spaces. Some things, such as living machines, I had never heard of.

In addition to readings on sustainability, ecological design, and other topics, we draw maps, design towns based on topography and what we think is vital, all in preparation for our big semester projects: working with actual sites in order to design their future uses in a “sustainable” way.  Sustainable, huh – what does that really mean? Well, that’s what I’m getting at… generally I think of it as environmentally related, and for environmentally related I think of nature and green roofs and such things. But, now I’m realizing that sustainable is the big picture. It involves historic preservation, green building, communities where people want to live and can support themselves, machines and homes that use less energy and respect the environment. With one aspect missing, sustainability is not complete. Constructing LEED certified gold standard buildings when you have perfectly sound historic structures sitting next to it is not sustainable; it’s a waste of energy and resources. Storm water must have a place to drain that will not hurt other water sources. Vegetation should be native, not imported, in order to survive and to represent the unique environment.

Like historic preservation, sustainability can be a lifestyle that stretches far beyond one community. It would be impossible for one town to be completely self sufficient these days, but perhaps thinking locally, regionally will be much more beneficial than thinking internationally for certain products.

Many of these points are things I’ve known, some are things I’ve learned, but it still seems like a new way of connecting everything. Perhaps it is paying more attention to the ecological factors in connection with the built environment.  There are so many overlaps between my preservation classes and my sustainability class. In both we talk or read about Jane Jacobs and about the early era of urban planning and town design and the theories behind them. When designing my own town with only the topography given to me, I could think about Jane Jacobs’ theories or the Garden City movement (which, I should add, are very different philosophies). At first I hit a wall for designing a town. Design a town – as in put buildings there? I normally think of towns with existing structures. It was difficult and completely different to the majority of my education so far. But, it’s a great way to step out of the preservation box, while successfully melding it with another field (it’s also further assurance of how connected preservation is to other fields).

What do you think?

Coincidentally, while all of this was on my mind, a friend (thanks, Ellen!) sent me this link to a book review for Green Metropolis by David Owen.  From what I gather, the gist of it is how living in New York City is actually a “green” existence. Owens writes about how sprawl is driven by people looking for a “green” place to live. His book is based on an article he wrote for The New Yorker in 2004. Here’s how it begins:

My wife and I got married right out of college, in 1978. We were young and naïve and unashamedly idealistic, and we decided to make our first home in a utopian environmentalist community in New York State. For seven years, we lived, quite contentedly, in circumstances that would strike most Americans as austere in the extreme: our living space measured just seven hundred square feet, and we didn’t have a dishwasher, a garbage disposal, a lawn, or a car. We did our grocery shopping on foot, and when we needed to travel longer distances we used public transportation. Because space at home was scarce, we seldom acquired new possessions of significant size. Our electric bills worked out to about a dollar a day. [David Owen, The New Yorker, 10.18.2004]

You expect him to say some little known “utopian” community, right?  Me too. And then he writes, “The utopian community was Manhattan.” I’m hooked. It looks like a great read and very relative to this sustainability buzzword.

Lessons from Jane

Burlington, VT is a beautiful place to live. No matter where I walk or run there are historic houses, bustling streets, vibrant parks, lake views and mountain views.  Some blocks are lined with elegant historic homes, all unique in shingles, dormers, porches, turrets, and landscaping. On other blocks, much smaller homes stand in a line. These homes are very similar in style, but additions and handiwork have given them character over the years. People live above business, in apartments, in duplexes, on the lake, and everywhere else.

House fronts, yards, and elevation seem to reveal a lot about the social class of neighborhood inhabitants. As a general rule it is easy to identify where the undergraduate students lives, where the upper class families live, and where those in between might live (young professionals, middle class families, etc.) The houses sit in various states of repair, some meticulously maintained and other crying for a paint job at the very least.

As a young professional/graduate student, I love that undergraduates and young working adults can live in these historic homes and are not banished to the suburbs or some apartment complex sitting next to the interstate. It keeps the community alive and diversity alive downtown and on the streets. People live on different schedules, so there is always something interesting happening.

However, I often catch myself wishing that these poor houses could all be given some good TLC and patched up. A paint job at least, random trash off the porch, how hard could that be? But, as we all know, when the place shapes up, rent goes up, and then property managers will not rent to undergraduates because of the stigma associated with them as tenants.  And although someone cleaning up a house’s appearance doesn’t necessarily equal gentrification, it still holds true that the nicer neighborhoods have higher property values and rents (at least here in Burlington – judging from all of the apartment searching I have done recently).

Thankfully, we all have Jane Jacobs to give us a few lessons in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Jacobs discusses how diversity in buildings is necessary to keep a block or a neighborhood strong.  Not every “old” building needs to be kept in tip-top shape, because it allows for a variety of businesses to move in and convert the building to fit its requirements. Older buildings are cheaper than modern construction, but when combined they attract diverse tenants (think of retail businesses that typically inhabit old buildings vs. ones that occupy new buildings). In the same fashion, people will live in houses and apartments of varying age. Owner investments into a house will be a long term investment whereas renters will make the place livable and pleasant for their time there. Community pride will take care of the neighborhood.

While the extremes of the above discussion are gentrification and the decay of a neighborhood, maintaining the mixture creates a safe, good environment for its residents. And I try to think of this as I explore my new surroundings. After all, I have seen the most activity on streets in the supposed “bad” neighborhood here, but then again downtown is always full of people, and in the “upper class” neighborhood people stroll and talk to their neighbors on the porches. And together they make combine to make a great city and a very entertaining running route. So, every building does not have to be restored to its historic grandeur, just maintained. Thanks for the lessons, Jane.

Reading List

We all have those preservation books that we want to read, but once school and/or work get in the way, these books remain distant longings.  It’d be a guilty pleasure to read something other than our assigned readings, even if it were preservation related.  Of course, I have not been in school for two years now, so I should have been able to read all of these books.  Some I have, others remain on my bookshelf just waiting for me. 

Aside from preservation books, I love historical fiction.  Growing up I read the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder and learned a great deal about the late 1800s and pioneers. I read the Dear America series and learned about all different time periods in diary form from fictional girls my age.  And the American Girl series (you know, those with the dolls) taught me even more, from colonial times to pioneers to the early 20th century to World War II. However, I’ve since risen above that reading level, just not the adoration of learning history in the first person voice (which echoes my current field, oral history.) 

A recent book purchase of mine was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. It is about the Great Depression and seems like a wonderful book.  I haven’t read it yet, but be sure that there will be a review of it when I do read it. 

This next book I’ve wanted to read for three years or so. In fact, fellow preservationists will be shocked to learn that I’ve never read it:  The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. It is the quintessential book of preservation combining with other fields and what we should do in the future.  See what I mean? I’m almost ashamed. How could I not have read this book?  Well, we were going to in class but somehow the syllabus got out of order and we were just never assigned the book and as much as I wanted to read it, I had many other readings to do as opposed to something that would not be assigned.  And then I did try after college, but found the introduction to be so slow that I would fall asleep reading it.  Someone told me to skip the introduction and just start with chapter one.  If all else fails, I’ll do that.  No matter what,  I WILL read this book before graduate school. 

Please share with me a list of reading I should do before graduate school (next year.)  I’ve been told I should read anything by Daniel Bluestone, who loves to write about sense of place, quality of life – that sort of thing. It sounds good to me!