So this is embarrassing but it must be admitted: I am only just now reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. And sure enough, here are all the familiar ideas, groundbreaking in 1961, mantras now for many urbanists: eyes on the street; mixity and diversity of uses; round-the-clock activity…
Oh, but what’s this? According to Jane Jacobs, the number one quality that promotes safety and order on the streets is that: “Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each-other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.” (1992 edition, p.35)
And what is this? Jane Jacobs dedicates the entire fifth chapter of the book to critiquing parks, and to deriding the way city-planners of her day uncritically vaunted open space as if it were a cure-all for social ills. With her knack for summing up the absurdities of modern planning, Jacobs highlights this except from the New York Times, 1961: “Mr. Moses conceded that some new housing might be ‘ugly, regimented, institutional, identical, conformed, faceless.’ But he suggested that such housing could be surrounded with parks.”
Of course some parks are vibrant and successful – Parc Lafontaine, Parc Jeanne-Mance and Carré Saint-Louis come to mind as local examples. But, Jacobs argues, that when it comes to park space, less is more:
“people in cities, with all their other interests and duties, can hardly enliven unlimited amounts of local, generalized park. City people would have to devote themselves to park use as if it were a business…to justify, for example, the plethora of malls, promenades, playgrounds, parks and indeterminate land oozes afforded in typical Radiant Garden City schemes.”
Although we have adopted many of Jacobs’ insights about cities, it’s still common to see not-quite-public space oozing about equally-uninspiring condo and apartment blocks:
Above: Space ooze in new developments in Saint-Laurent, Griffintown and Verdun
Double-take on Meadowbrook
A few weeks ago, I attended a public discussion about Petite-Rivière, a project which adopts the principles of a one-planet community. 70% of the site would be public space, including both re-naturalized areas and landscaped parks. Supporters and opponents of the project alike agreed that the city needs more greenspace and many underlined the excellent precedent that such a project would set.
But while this plan may be adapted to Meadowbrook’s particular shape, location, history, and biodiversity, does this kind of land-use really make sense in Turcot or in Pointe-St-Charles?
Perhaps today more than ever, it feels like sacrilege to critique the existence of greenspace, any green space. Montreal notoriously lags behind other Canadian cities and international standards in terms of parkland. And, faced with problems such as heat-island effect, biodiversity loss and food security, doesn’t every little bit of greenspace count?
I think that the first thing that I think we need to do is to ditch the notion of “green.” A colour cannot stand in for a value system and most lawns are about as bio-diverse as a bedbug infestation.
If we need space in the city for biodiversity, urban agriculture, rain-water filtration, local waste diversion, geothermal pipes and other renewable energies – and I believe that we do – then let’s be clear about it. Lets draw it into the plans; lets see architectural renderings with gardeners on their knees weeding rather than couples strolling against a bucolic green background; lets see indigenous wildflowers and birds and even insects; lets see those unsexy compost bins and solar panels. Oh, and let’s use the roofs, of goodness sake.
But assuming that some nondescript greenspace will automatically assure that a new development is either sustainable or family-friendly is about as logical as the 1950s assumption that space ooze would “fight blight” in slums. It didn’t, and it won’t.