Archive for the ‘Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson’ Category

Jane Jacobs and Rachel Carson: Legacies

Thursday, April 14th, 2011

This year makes the 50th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Next year will be the 50th anniversary of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.  This posting will be the first of a series of postings assessing  the work, influence, and legacy of these two wise authors.

It is perhaps difficult to remember the prevailing ethos of the era that produced these books.  The end of the 1950s was a time when faith in government was strong:  there had been no JFK assassination, no Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle was in full stream, but it had yet to shake confidence in the belief that US society was flawed.  Just as important, in my opinion, is that there was a lack of awareness of the way unintended consequences or unwanted failures of policy or processes, could wreck havoc on the world around us.

For example, no one who used DDT and other pesticides had set out to poison birds and destroy the ecosystem.  Many would have been surprised to even think that the manmade world intersected with the natural.  But Carson laid out the case that the unintended consequences of pesticide use was harming bird populations and that unregulated and unforeseen movement of man-made chemicals could severely alter ecosystems for the worse.

Jacobs’s targets were more purposive.  Conventional urban renewal, modernism, and Broadacre-like development had meant to provide vibrant, healthy communities and revive cities. But Jacobs pointed out that the effects were in reality, quite the opposite.  Rather than helping cities, these types of design ideas were actually destroying them.

In the post Jacobs-Carson world, we are more savvy.  We now know that wanting to do good is not enough, bad things can happen despite the best of intentions.  We know that our every action can have important impacts that were not anticipated.  Our actions have consequences, our everyday lives can affect others.