Following on from a Jane Jacobs inspired walk for the RTPI that Jules recently led for Bristol’s Young Planners, and as part of our 2022 ‘sustainability’ theme, it seemed a good opportunity to consider what makes a place ‘sustainable’ in the wider sense. Not just from an environmental perspective, but what makes a successful place tick, how it works, how it evolves and thrives. 

So let’s take a look at the principles of what constitutes a great place based on Jacobs philosophy. We can then consider these when looking at the development potential of a site, regenerating an area or even assessing an application. 

Jane who?

Jane Jabobs – a feisty journalist, author, urbanist and activist, would have been 106 years old on May 4th. Her book ‘The Life and Death of Great American Cities’ was first published in 1961. A seminal work for any Planning Student and Graduate, this book remains as relevant today as it was some 60 years ago, forming the starting point for a range of recent ‘liveable city’ philosophies including the 20 minutes city and more recently Carlos Moreno’s 15 minutes living smart city. 

Born from the fire of her fight against Robert Moses’ wholescale renewal and redevelopment philosophy in New York’s Greenwich and West Village, and the various communities and districts she witnessed in other major American cities, Jacobs devised a set of ‘principles’ of what she considered made a successful city and championed ideas about how they function, evolve, thrive and fail. 

Essentially, she was interested in people and how people make places. She was aware of the power and fragility of democracy. Particularly the need for people to drive what they both want and need in their Cities. She strongly advocated a bottom up approach that was led by community needs and aspirations, whilst being acutely aware of the need for more centralised forms of power and responsibility to support and lead only where necessary. 

The Magic Ingredients 

Jacobs’ principles were not rocket science, and actually reflect the way Cities naturally evolved prior to the rise of the car and modern town planning. They are also equally applicable to towns, villages and individual development sites. Essentially, she found that Cities: 

  • Comprise integrated and sensitive eco-systems that work and thrive when their physical, social and economic elements work together;
  • Are rich socially, culturally and economically;
  • Thrive on dynamism. They are not static places, but are constantly evolving and responding to all sorts of influences;
  • Need an intricate and diverse range of uses that support each other physically, economically and socially; 
  • Require a dense concentration of and the continuous presence of people, who are there for different reasons, using different facilities and at different times of the day;
  • Must include a diversity of buildings – ages, sizes and styles – protection of heritage assets, as these provide the space for different types of uses and tenures; 
  • Have safe streets and safe spaces and also the perception of safety; and,
  • Rely on decision makers and developers looking at and understanding how cities actually work, and not how they think they should work.

So what can we learn from Jane Jacobs? 

The limitations imposed by the Pandemic over the last two years have afforded a huge opportunity to assess where and how people want to live and the types of places they want to be part of. We have a planning system that has for decades focussed on locating development in certain areas and delivering houses at all costs. However, by directing development into city centres and high streets in order to centralise a city’s resources, it has killed suburban centres – limiting commercial business opportunities, generating sky high business rates, strangling leisure facilities and requiring people to work outside of the areas in which they live. By relaxing planning controls to allow the loss of retail and business residential use, the system has robbed areas of local shops and employment opportunities. By limiting residential and commercial development in the Green Belt, it creates unsustainable places that eviscerate local populations and the viability of local facilities. 

But Jacobs’ work reminds us that, even in the face of some pretty unhelpful national policies, there is a lot that can be done to create more sustainable places, and that planning isn’t just about financial profit. Putting people and the planet at the heart of the development industry is absolutely vital. Understanding what makes an area special, what makes it tick and what it needs – not what we think it needs or what we want to develop – is important in order to either add to or create a new successful place. This doesn’t require a radical approach to public consultation. Just genuine engagement with local residents to see what is important to them, whether they think an area has an identity and how that should be embraced and a generous amount of time spent in an area.

So, mindful of her principles, take a look around, understand the physical and architectural context of your area. We all instinctively feel more comfortable in places that are smaller in scale and more intimate, that we walk between or get to easily, places that have great architecture of all different ages both old and modern. How depressing are boring, grey places?. Anywhere architecture numbs the soul. How emotionally and mentally invigorating is great landscaping and mature trees? How exciting and safe does it feel to be around places where there are lots of people? (we will get back there, post pandemic). An area that benefits from a diversity of uses provides more reasons to visit. Busy, bustling areas are more interesting to be in. More people are there for a variety of reasons and for longer, throughout the day and night. Adding to the vibrancy of an area is more profitable in all sorts of ways. 

When you really think about places that you love – whether to live, visit, socialise or work – and consider what makes them special, you’ll realise that there are definite elements that are consistent throughout and that these probably align with Jane Jacobs philosophy. We’re certainly determined to really ‘see’ what is going on around us and approach our projects with a renewed consciousness and vigour. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Jane Jacobs and the liveable city movements, check out the following and be inspired:

The Death and Life of Great American Cities – by Jane Jacobs

The Ideal City: Exploring Urban Futures – by Robert Klanten and Elli Stuhler

From What Is to What If – by Rob Hopkins