News / Toronto

European researchers prove Jane Jacobs was right

Using an innovative mix of municipal stats and mobile phone data, researchers have shown Jacobs' ingredients for a vibrant city ring true in Italy.

Jane Jacobs at a public meeting in New York in 1960.

Wikimedia Commons

Jane Jacobs at a public meeting in New York in 1960.

If Jane Jacobs was alive today, she could say “I told you so.”

A group of Italian researchers have given the urban planning icon a big present ahead of what would have been her 100th birthday: They’ve proven her theories correct.

In her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs proposed four ingredients for vibrant, attractive cities: Mixed land uses, small blocks, diverse buildings in terms of age and form, and sufficient population density.

The ideas became a fixture of urban planning policies in cities like Toronto, where she lived from 1968 until her death in 2006. However, her work has also been criticized for lacking empirical evidence to back up her claims.

Not anymore. University of Trento professor Marco De Nadai and his colleagues have used a combination of planning and smartphone data to show Jacobs’ theories hold true for Italy’s largest cities.

The researchers analyzed six cities, including Rome and Florence, and found neighbourhoods that conformed to Jacob’s ideals had higher levels of mobile phone activity, which they took as a proxy for “urban vitality.”

The areas have dense concentrations of office workers, urban spaces like coffee shops and cafés, small streets and historical buildings, the study concludes.

Jane’s Walk Toronto director Denise Pinto said it was “a beautiful coincidence” that De Nadai’s research was published so close to Jacobs’ centenary in May.

“When Jane wrote about her observations of the street, she was working from her own opinions and experiences. We often don’t look at those as rigorous, but we should. The way people experience their cities is important,” she said. “It comes down to how we all co-exist in this messy system of the city.”

The impacts of Jacobs’ policies are still evident in downtown Toronto, and Pinto suggested it’s time to apply the same thinking to the city’s suburbs – where streets are predominately designed around the car.

“We’re trying to understand what it would look like to retrofit suburbia to incorporate more of Jane’s principles,” she said. 

Happy birthday, Jane!

Jane Jacobs would have turned 100 on May 4, 2016. To celebrate her centenary, a number of activities are planned around Toronto.

  • Take a Jane’s Walk. The organization is going all out for Jane’s birthday and will be celebrating its own 10th anniversary. Walks are scheduled for May 6-8, and anyone is invited to lead one. For more information, visit janeswalk.org.
  • Watch and learn. The New Urbanism Film Festival is coming to Toronto for the first time on April 21. The short film collection focuses on efforts to improve urban life, and many films reflect Jacob’s ideals. Films start screening at 6:30 p.m. at Innis Town Hall (2 Sussex Ave.) Tickets are $12.

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