Urban theorist Jane Jacobs urges North America to heed the warning signs of the next Dark Age or risk cultural collapse
By Isabel Nanton
[This book review of Jane Jacobs’ “Dark Age Ahead”, Random House of Canada, 2004 was published in The Vancouver Sun, May 15, 2004.]
Standing sentinel on the modern era, challenging our ideas about what makes a functioning society, the 88-year-old urban theorist Jane Jacobs is concerned, but not gloomy about the future. She has written a book she hopes will “help our culture avoid sliding into a dead end, by understanding how such tragedies come about and thereby what can be done to ward them off.”
It’s called Dark Age Ahead, and its vintage Jacobs.
Starting in 1961, with her ground-breaking work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, now routinely credited with changing the way North American city planners do their work, the amiable poly-math has thought long and hard about the state of this continent. She has reached the conclusion that if we would just pay attention to the warning signals all around us, we could prevent a slide into one of the many documented Dark Ages that litter written history.
Now, my Chambers Dictionary defines Dark Ages as “the period of European history from the 4th century to the 9th century or 12th century (or 15th century), once considered to be a time of intellectual darkness.”
But Jacobs, who always casts her intellectual net wider, defines a Dark Age as an “extreme example of cultural collapse.” She believes our culture will become unsalvageable if the stabilizing forces keeping it intact are ruined.
In examining these stabilizing forces, she presents what she considers to be the five pillars of culture: community, higher education, the effective practice of science and science-based technology, taxes and government powers directly in touch with cities’ needs and possibilities, and self-policing by the learned professions.
Apologizing in advance for being “less omniscient that I should be,” she then sakes up our concepts of these pillars. Her trademark reasoning style is dense with dynamic thoughts and delivered in a way that is simultaneously concise, ruminative and non-confrontational.
With half of Canada’s population living in the five largest cities, her focus is on people living in close proximity to one another. She is a fan of densification and praises the “discretionary zoning codes” introduced in recent years in Vancouver to aid densification. But she cautions that codes “need to reflect residents’ wishes,” and she asks the tough question, Who has the discretion?
Jacobs’ assumed role is always to examine the concepts, then ask the difficult questions.
So what exactly does this book of prevention contain to help us “avoid falling into terminal masses” in ever-more crowded cities?
First off, Jacobs looks to the importance of community and within community, the family unit. The latter is “rigged to fail,” she argues, mainly because of the pressures on young families.
With more than half of Canadian marriages ending in divorce after 13.7 years (“not long enough to raise children to adulthood”), she proceeds to advocate appropriate, affordable housing as something that would alleviate one of the pressures on poor families and on the one million Canadian children living in poverty.
This isn’t rocket science, but her message is that to ignore the poor’s plight is to allow this pillar of community to warp and disintegrate. Then society as a whole risks sliding into a Dark Age.
Never a fan of the automobile (she has never driven or owned a car and fingers them-not TV, not illegal drugs-as “the chief destroyer of American communities”), she calls for strengthened public transport.
Again, the argument is not exactly new. But she puts a fresh spin on it, pointing out that this would take yet another economic pressure-that of owning a car-off young families.
And for every theory, she has a telling anecdote. When she raises her periscope to survey the practice of “shoddy science” on a continent where “science is admired almost to the point of worship,” Jacobs looks to the disastrous Chicago heat wave of 1995. Eighty eminent scientists descended on the city to ascertain the reason for high fatalities among the elderly.
Their conclusion? Lack of air-conditioning.
Not good enough, says Jacobs. She gently condemns both the “slovenly use of analogies” and a “creeping reluctance to lose paradigms” as flaws, in science as it’s practiced here.
In Chicago, a young sociology graduate who had really thought about the mortality problem took his research to the next level. He discovered that the death rate was higher in one suburb because “elderly people were not accustomed to walking in their district because there was almost nothing for them to walk to.” When the heat wave struck, those elders were afraid to leave their houses and seek air-con in stores, so they died in their apartments.
Give us “fresh truths from the real world,” Jacobs exhorts scientists, whom she considers gatekeepers against a Dark Age. “If that is lost, all is lost.”
She also calls economists and accountants to strict account. Despite the Enron scandal and others like it, “greed has become culturally admired as competence,” she says. False and unrealistic promises are revered as cleverness.
Higher education, another of culture’s pillars, does not escape her scrutiny, but the charm of Jacobs’ writing is that she avoids a hectoring or pompous tone. “She’s concerned about universities, where “professors lack the time and energy they could once devote to personal contact with students.”
Community colleges, she feels, are better at maintaining “an admirably close connection between education and training.” Yet this, too, is being eroded. Even colleges are “on the verge of a transformation into credentially disconnected from education.”
Admired for her plain prose and common sense, Jacobs has sometimes been resented for failing to respect scholarship. I would argue that her honesty is, in itself, a form of originality. In Dark Age Ahead, we again see that independence of soul.
Jacobs, who was born in Scranton, Penn., but has lived in Toronto since 1968, has walked the walk and earned the right, several times over, to talk the talk.
By working to make her immediate community more livable, by micro-managing the issues that affect her neighbors’ daily lives, she is present in the true sense of the word.
In Kenya, where I come from, we bestow the name mzee on elders, from whom we seek wisdom. Dark Age Ahead, contains the words of a true mzee; advice which we ignore at our peril.