Special Events

Jane Jacobs and the Digital City

Special Events
27 Sep, 2016

Jane Jacobs and the Digital City

In his otherwise dismissive New Yorker review of Jane Jacobs’ 1962 Death and Life of Great American Cities (“Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”), Lewis Mumford allowed that Jacobs represented “a new kind of ‘expert,’ very refreshing in current planning circles where minds unduly fascinated by computers carefully confine themselves to asking only the kind of question that computers can answer…”

Yet, some 50 years on, it is clear that few were more prescient in understanding the networked nature of cities, and the complex and subtle way people and information work together to create urban life, than Jacobs herself. Marking the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ birth, and as part of the celebrations organized by the Municipal Art Society leading to the presentation of the Jane Jacobs Medal at the United Nation’s Habitat III Conference in Quito, Ecuador in October, the Berkeley Center for New Media and SPUR present a conversation with Jane Jacobs scholar Peter Laurence, historian of urban computing Jennifer Light, and Code for America founder Jennifer Pahlka, moderated by BCNM Director Nicholas de Monchaux and SPUR Editorial Director Allison Arieff.

Event costs $10 at the door. Free for SPUR and BCNM members. Register online.


Peter Laurence

Peter Laurence is director of graduate studies and associate professor of architectural and urban history, theory, and design at Clemson University School of Architecture, and the author of Becoming Jane Jacobs. He has been a student of Jane Jacobs's work for many years, with his studies in business/entrepreneurship, architecture, and urban history drawing him to her books on cities, economies, and civilizations. He began his research on Jacobs while a student at Harvard Graduate School of Design and continued it in the PhD Program in Architecture at University of Pennsylvania. His early work changed Jacobs scholarship and contributed to the creation of the Rockefeller Foundation's Jane Jacobs Medals in 2006. While interested in intersections of architectural and urban theory with proto-scientific/scientific thinking since the Renaissance, as well as the histories of modern architecture and urbanism of the 20th century, he continues work on Jacobs and is now writing a reader's guide to The Death and Life of Great American Cities. His work has been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, the Rockefeller Archive Center, and the Clemson University College of Architecture, Arts & Humanities.

Jennifer Light

Jennifer S Light is a professor in MIT's Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). Her research investigates the intersection of science, technology and urban politics in US history, with special attention to the applications of scientific and technical ideas and innovations in programs of social reform and social control. Light is the author of two books on the sociology of scientific urban knowledge: The Nature of Cities: Ecological Visions and the American Urban Professions, 1920-1960 (2009, 2014) and From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America (2003, 2005). Together, the books explain the dominance of specific scientific models for understanding and managing cities during the twentieth century — and what difference such conceptualizations of city problems and solutions made in how US history unfolded. The Nature of Cities received Honorable Mention for the 2009 Lewis Mumford Prize; From Warfare to Welfare was a finalist for the Don K. Price Award. She is also editor, with Danielle Allen, of From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (forthcoming), and author of articles and essays appearing in New Media and Society; Technology and Culture; Journal of Urban History; Journal of the American Planning Association; and other venues.

Jennifer Pahlka

Jennifer Pahlka is the founder and executive director of Code for America. She recently served as the U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, where she architected and helped found the United States Digital Service. She is known for her TED talk, Coding a Better Government, and is the recipient of several awards, including MIT’s Kevin Lynch Award, the Oxford Internet Institute’s Internet and Society Award, and the National Democratic Institute’s Democracy Award. She spent eight years at CMP Media, where she ran the Game Developers Conference, Game Developer magazine,, and the Independent Games Festival. Previously, she ran the Web 2.0 and Gov 2.0 events for TechWeb, in conjunction with O’Reilly Media. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Oakland, California with her daughter, husband, and seven chickens.

Moderated by:

Allison Arieff

Allison Arieff is SPUR's editorial director. A contributing columnist to The New York Times since 2006, Allison writes about architecture, design and cities for numerous publications including California Sunday, the MIT Technology Review, Dialogue and CityLab. She is a former editor-at-large for GOOD and Sunset magazines and from 2006–2008 was senior content lead for the global design and innovation firm IDEO. She was editor-in-chief of Dwell (and was the magazine’s founding senior editor) until 2006; Dwell won the National Magazine Award for General Excellence in 2005 under her tenure. Arieff is also the author of the books Prefab and Trailer Travel: A Visual History of Mobile America and has contributed to and/or edited numerous books on architecture, design and sustainability including Airstream: The History of the Land Yacht, Hatch Show Print: History of a Great American Poster Shop, Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York and Urban Farms. She lectures and consults regularly on design and media and has been featured on NPR, KQED Forum, the Diane Rehm Show, the Sundance Channel’s Big Ideas for a Small Planet, HGTV and CNN Money, among others. Allison got her start in publishing with stints at Random House, Oxford University Press and Chronicle Books. She has a BA in history, an MA in art history and completed her PhD coursework in American studies at New York University.

Nicholas de Monchaux

Nicholas de Monchaux is the Director of the Berkeley Center for New Media, Associate Professor of Architecture and Urban Design at UC Berkeley, and the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo (MIT Press, 2011). Spacesuit, shortlisted for the Art Book Prize, is an architectural and urban history of the Apollo Spacesuit and winner of the Eugene Emme award from the American Astronautical Society. de Monchaux’s work has been exhibited at the 2010 Biennial of the Americas, the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale, and San Francisco’s SFMOMA. de Monchaux received his B.A. with distinction in Architecture, from Yale, and his M.Arch. from Princeton. Prior to his independent practice, he worked in the offices of Michael Hopkins & Partners in London, and Diller, Scofidio + Renfro in New York. He is a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome and the Macdowell Colony, and has received additional design awards and fellowships from Parsons, the International Union of Architects, Pamphlet Architecture and the Van Alen Institute. His research in design theory and technology has been supported by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the Hellman Family fund, the Santa Fe Institute, and the Smithsonian Institution.

A BCNM partnership with: SPUR

Update (30 september 2017)

A result of the work that Jacobs did, is that cities are fundamentally unpredictable things. With the amount of variables involved, the butterfly (or seagull) effect comes in. Cities and their inhabitants build social networks, which build social capital in turn. Urban renovation destroys that capital and contributes to social stagnation, rather than the inverse. Jane Jacobs was all about the street. She believed that you had to be on the street, side by side with people to form a network. The solution is not leaving their neighborhoods, but rather building the neighborhood up based on ultra local needs.

Even within her own time, she understood that virtual communication would not be able to convey the amount of nonverbal communication that goes on. She commented on this when analyzing the density of New York City's Wall Street. Another result of Jacobs' work, was the idea that technology cannot necessarily solve the problem of a city. A city is a person problem, not an engineering problem. Engineers develop solutions without thinking about what people need. A particularly telling quote was "Your focus group can't be the six engineers on your team."

The talk finished with a question and answer session with the panelists.

SPUR is a member-supported non-profit organization that promotes good planning and good government in the San Francisco Bay Area through research, education and advocacy. Their the 14,500-square-foot Urban Center serves as SPUR's main headquarters. Pfau Long Architecture developed the four-floor structure, which includes a streetfront exhibition gallery, a 125-seat public assembly hall, workspace for staff members and a top-floor meeting space with an outdoor deck overlooking Mission Street.

Keep an eye out for more events coming out of BNCM.

Check out photos from the event here and our storify here.

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