Google Doodle yesterday honored Jane Jacobs

Google Doodle yesterday honored Jane Jacobs

Yesterday’s Google Doodle featured Jane Jacobs, who turned 100 years old. Jacobs is famous for revolutionizing the way cities are built. She’s a queen of counter-establishment thinking whose book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” in 1961 revolutionized the way urban planners approached design.

Her ideas are being seen in our neighborhoods today, and they stand to show up, if things go as planned, here in Lake Highlands — one area is particularly desperate for the type of change she prompted.

When I last wrote about the need for redevelopment at Skillman-I-635, in the vicinity of the LBJ Skillman DART station, I spoke to Susan Morgan, a longtime Lake Highlands resident and champion of implementing Jacons’ ideas in our neighborhood. Morgan said she “found Jacobs’ book extremely inspirational. It’s about New York and Jersey, but it was fascinating because I was reading, going, ‘That’s Dallas.’ The concepts in that book help you make sense of why urban planning is like it is.”

As this piece on Jane Jacobs points out, urban planning movements of the post-WWII era were rooted in the idea that beautiful architecture was superior to crowded streets. Jacobs’ vision, however, favored bustling, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods — ones with a mix of shops, offices, and housing that brought people together — over giant housing projects and sterile plazas.

While the establishment urban planners saw crowded, walkable streets as unattractive, Jacobs looked at it differently. Here’s what happened when she went walking with chief planner from Philadelphia:

“First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy.”

Jacobs also famously fought a New York City Planner who wanted to build an expressway through SoHo and the east side of New York. Yes, their feud was so dramatic it was made into an opera. That’s right.

Essentially, Jacobs thought pedestrians were more important than cars. Walkable streets and paths trumped big highways and thoroughfares, in her mind.

And it’s not all about the way things look. As we in Lake Highlands understand too well, big, dense, inadequately maintained and secured apartment complexes can be dangerous grounds.

The Skillman-635 DART station is underutilized and offers an opportunity for a modern mixed-use space.

Artist rendering: The Skillman-635 DART station is underutilized and offers an opportunity for a modern mixed-use space.

That DART station provides an excellent possible centerpiece for a future mix-use development. It includes work by local artists commemorating Lady Bird Johnson’s highway beautification project — station columns feature stylized tire-tread patterns, tables await picnickers, and native wildflowers line the parking lot and entrance. It is a beautiful station, if underused. It’s quite deserted the times I’ve been there. There is a short little boulevard called Adleta leading from busy Skillman to the station. Less than a mile long, Adleta, and the apartments that line it, shows up regularly in crime reports. People are shot, robbed and raped so frequently that the incidents seldom even make TV news.

Jacobs, in her book, makes an argument that the design of mixed-use developments acts as a crime deterrent. She observed that mixed-use neighborhoods had people watching the streets throughout the day, both from the ground-floor shops and the mid-rise apartment buildings above those shops. These”eyes on the street,” she noted, reduced crime.

In order for a street to be a safe place, she insisted, “there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street.” This idea is continuously expounded upon today.

A land-use study of the area around the DART based in many of Jacobs’ ideals was approved and adopted by the Dallas City Council in October 2014. That means that heretofore the city will consult the recommendations of this plan when any action is requested that would affect the 635-Skillman area. Read more about that here.