Revisited: Jane Jacobs and the Digital City

30 Sep, 2016

Revisited: Jane Jacobs and the Digital City

BCNM co-sponsored Jane Jacobs and the Digital City this Tuesday, September 27th, at the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association's Urban Center in San Francisco. The event commemorated the 100th anniversary of Jacob's birth. The talk invited Peter Lawrence and MIT's Jennifer Light, moderated by SPUR editorial director Allison Arlieff and BCNM director Nicholas De Monchaux. Jennifer Palka was unfortunately not able to attend. This was De Monchaux's first event as BCNM director and it could not have gone more wonderfully.

The event started off with Arlief introducing SPUR and Jane Jacobs. Each of the speakers gave a short talk about Jacobs and the impact she has had on history, architecture and technology. Peter Lawrence, who has been an avid student of Jacobs for many years, gave a particularly articulate piece.

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.

Learn more about SPUR here, and keep an eye out for more events coming out of BNCM.