You asked a question, Councillor Browaty: Here’s your answer

In the hard-copy edition of today’s Winnipeg Free Press, Councillor Jeff Browaty is quoted as asking a question about the much-debated plan for the development of Corydon Village. As fate would have it, Jane Jacobs answered his question 51 years ago. I’m going to quote the Free Press account of his question and then quote Ms. Jacobs’s answer, as delivered in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which ought to be required reading for everyone who loves cities.

The Free Press: Coun… Browaty… said Corydon has seen successful developments arise from few restrictions and the new planning process doesn’t have to be… in-depth. “Overall, what’s there works, why mess with it?” Browaty said.

Ms. Jacobs’s answer: …the self-destruction of diversity… is a force that creates has-been districts, and is responsible for much inner-city stagnation and decay… it can happen in streets, at small nodes of vitality, in groupings of streets, or in whole districts. The last case is the most serious.

Whichever form the self-destruction of diversity takes, this, in broad strokes, is what happens: A diversified mixture of [land] uses at some place in the city becomes outstandingly popular and successful as a whole. Because of the location’s success, which is invariably based on flourishing and magnetic diversity, ardent competition for space in this location develops. It is taken up in what amounts to the economic equivalent of a fad.

The winners in the competition for space will represent only a narrow segment of the many uses that together created success. Whichever one or few uses have emerged as the most profitable in the locality will be repeated and repeated, crowding out and overwhelming less profitable forms of use.

If tremendous numbers of people, attracted by convenience and interest, or charmed by vigour and excitement, choose to live or work in the area, again the winners of the competition will form a narrow segment of the population of users. Since so many want to get in, those who get in or stay in will be self-sorted by the expense…

Thus, from this process, one or a few dominating uses emerge triumphant. But the triumph is hollow. A most intricate and successful organism of mutual economic support and social mutual support has been destroyed by the process. From this point on the locality will be deserted by people using it for purposes other than those that emerged triumphant from the competition — because the other purposes are no longer there. Both visually and functionally the place becomes more monotonous.

Ms. Jacobs said it best: We have to plan the development of our city – and especially its gems, like the Corydon, Osborne and Exchange districts – carefully. Good areas can go bad if we don’t manage their growth judiciously.

For city councillors, who have the tough job of accommodating or overriding the many economic interests that converge on a neighbourhood like Corydon Village, the quotation from Jacobs is but a sample of the wealth of thoughtful analysis she offered. You can learn a lot from her book.

Whether you’re a city councillor or not, if you care about Winnipeg, or any other major city, get a copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Random House, 1961). When Ms. Jacobs wrote the book, she lived in New York, but she later gave up on New York and spent the rest of her life in Toronto. The academic world first ignored her book, then treated it dismissively and finally embraced it. In a formidable career as a public intellectual, Death and Life remains her best work.

It also remains controversial. For a sample of the controversy, read the section on Jacobs in this chapter.

Here’s the latest from the Free Press regarding the Corydon issue. The article links to more details about the plan for the area.

2 responses to “You asked a question, Councillor Browaty: Here’s your answer

  1. Chris, I believe Jacob’s is more of a non-planner than most of us understand. Seriously, read her book, boring as it may be. While we planners love her beloved Greenwich Village in Central New York, we fail when we believe that it is a pure “model” that can be applied elsewhere, particularly in a mid-sized Canadian prairie city. The mix of uses, local economy, society and character of Greenwich Village were not “planned”, nor was Corydon “planned”. It evolved over time. We began to fail when we began to intervene to protect something by using a purely regulatory approach. We can succeed as planners when we learn to truly listen, learn, and facilitate the organic evolution of successful neighbourhoods. That needs an inclusive, open-minded process … and a lot less zoning!

  2. Jacqueline, you and I are friends, despite the fact that we sometimes disagree (or maybe because of it), so I can’t resist replying, because I disagree with just about everything you said, except the part about planners listening and facilitating the evolution of successful neighbourhoods. I don’t suggest that Greenwich Village of the ’50s is a model for Corydon. It’s their individuality that makes them interesting, but they do have one thing in common: Facilitating their organic evolution, to borrow from your wording, includes ensuring that they’re not allowed to be transformed from interesting, varied, vital neighbourhoods into boring, chaotic bar strips.

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