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See Jane wow 'em

| Sunday, Nov. 2, 2003

You gotta love the great Jane Jacobs -- especially if you live in Pittsburgh.

Jacobs has been North America's revered guru of cities since 1961. That's when she, a mere housewife and free-lance journalist, shredded the intellectual credibility of urban planning by writing "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

The book that made her immortal is a brilliant, bottoms-up explanation of how cities -- "organic, spontaneous, untidy" places -- work best without the interference of top-down planners. It can be found on any reliable list of the top 100 most-influential works of the last century.

Unfortunately for Pittsburghers, Jacobs' ideas weren't influential soon enough. Local power brokers and their planning "experts" ignored them then and still do, as Mayor Tom Murphy has proved time and again.

How smart was Jacobs• Here, from "Death and Life," is what she said cities were getting from the federal billions poured down the rat holes of urban renewal:

"Housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy of city life. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums.

"Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain store shopping. Promenades that go from nowhere to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities."

That was 1961. But Jacobs was describing the future of Pittsburgh. What she wrote in 1969, in "The Economies of Cities," was more chilling: Because Pittsburgh had over-specialized in steel-making and manufacturing, its economy had actually begun to stagnate in 1910.

Meanwhile, she said, after World War II, Pittsburgh's civic and corporate leaders busied themselves protecting the economic and social status quo and polishing the city's image. Instead, Jacobs said, they should have been trying to incubate new industries to replace steel.

Making matters worse, the city's dwindling capital was devoted "to immensely expensive urban-renewal and highway programs that have not helped the economy at all." By 1967, Jacobs wrote, Pittsburgh's economy was worse than it had been in 1947.

Today most smart, modern mayors understand Jacobs. They know cities need to be lightly governed to attract the dynamic, productive, wealth-generating creative people described by CMU professor Richard Florida in his best-seller "The Rise of the Creative Class."

Jacobs is ideologically elusive. She values freedom and markets and has no love for most government coercion -- economic or social. Yet she'll resort to zoning to protect cool buildings, control sprawl or keep cars in their proper urban place.

Jacobs, who was born in Scranton in 1916, is still very much alive. She uses a walker and an earphone. But her mind and wit are sharp, as I witnessed firsthand two weekends ago when I met her in Toronto, the bustling city she's lived in since 1968.

I was there to do a story on Florida, who was the star attraction and dashing keynote speaker at a two-day conference on how to make cities more creative, livable and prosperous.

The highlight on Saturday afternoon was a "dialogue" between Florida and Jacobs in front of several hundred thrilled people. Jacobs, the local hero whose great ideas may save America's cities yet, did 95 percent of the talking -- and everyone loved it.

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