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March 27, 2000

Urban planning guru Jane Jacobs on the traps we set for ourselves

By ANNE-MARIE TOBIN -- Canadian Press

TORONTO -- Author Jane Jacobs, a young-at-heart 83-year-old, is sitting in her living room -- her walker nearby -- talking about alternatives to cars, trucks and highways that contribute to traffic congestion and suburban sprawl.

She points to the Netherlands as an "amazing" example of a densely occupied country with a prosperous economy that isn't so "victimized" because it has a variety of options, everything from bicycles to fast trains.

"I mean the more solutions to a problem you can find, the less apt you are to get real trapped," the white-haired writer says as she discusses one of the themes of her new book, The Nature of Economies, published Saturday by Random House.

Jacobs will be in London this week to read from the new book at Althouse College auditorium. Admission is free.

The book represents the serious side of Jane Jacobs. Her playful self -- when it comes to transportation issues -- would just love to strap on a set of wheels.

"I get very envious when I see the inline skaters going by. We didn't have those when I was young," she says with a hint of regret. Jacobs, who turns 84 in May, is recovering from a hip operation and having trouble with a knee. Her physiotherapist had been over to the house for a session that morning.

A photographer who arrives to take her picture volunteers that he skateboards.

"Oh, I'm so envious of that, too," Jacobs says, her eyes lighting up. "It looks marvellous."

Jacobs, one of the 20th century's most influential critics of urban planning, may not be getting around as fast as she used to, but she's very much up-to-date -- in fact, probably ahead of her time -- when it comes to insights on the economy, environment and how and why things work the way they do.

She rose to fame in 1961 with The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that influenced how a generation of city dwellers thought about the parks, streets and buildings that make up their habitat.

Jacobs and her architect husband Bob, who died in 1996, left New York for Toronto's Annex neighbourhood 32 years ago because they didn't want their two sons drafted for the war in Vietnam.

Other books followed, including The Economy of Cities and Systems of Survival. An urban activist, she worked on neighbourhood preservation in New York, and helped fight the Spadina Expressway, which would have cut a swath through residential areas in Toronto.

The Nature of Economies looks at how economies in the human world mimic those found in nature. Economic growth, for instance, is not unlike an ecosystem in which "abandoned pastures and hayfields zoomed into luxuriant life," with infusions of energy from the sun.

She has biting words about how Canada has "this romance" from the past that "its wealth is its natural resources, and that they're inexhaustible.

"Neither one of those things is true, actually."

She notes that the problems of the East Coast cod fishery were spelled out by ecologists and inshore fishermen long before the fishery collapsed.

"But it doesn't help to spell things out if the people who have the power to change them don't hear. And the Newfoundland government didn't hear and the federal government didn't hear."

She says something probably just as bad is happening again -- overfishing of shrimp and the other creatures that cod and large groundfish feed on.

"So, they haven't learned anything. Now that's pretty serious. It's very serious to have a government, a couple of governments, that aren't able to learn even with experience about something so important."

Although her book doesn't address the topic of genetically modified foods, Jacobs says she's been watching that debate with concern.

"It's being done on such a big scale, so fast. That's not cautious. That's what we did with nuclear energy, and that was a bad thing," she says.

"The most outrageous thing about it is the notion that a company can patent a whole great swatch of life like this."

Her subject matter is thought-provoking, but the work isn't preachy or ponderous. Indeed, her views are often tempered by the same lively sense of fun she displayed as she discussed inline skating.

In the book, which she pounded out on a Remington portable typewriter, Jacobs presents her arguments by putting them in the mouths of five characters who get together for wide-ranging, philosophical discussions in New York and Hoboken, N.J.

Jacobs says she used this technique to allow them to express different points of view and different stages of understanding.

"This is a very old literary device, much older than the novel," she explains. "It goes back to Plato, and probably before him."

She notes that some readers don't know what to do when confronted by this style, and think of it as a novel -- which it isn't.

"So why tell a non-fiction tale this way? Well, because it is such a good device for expanding arguments that it's a pity to have it lost. And so one thing that I've been trying to do is modernize this tradition."


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