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May 24, 2011 / Leo Hollis

An English Jane Jacobs?

There was a fascinating debate on the 50th Anniversary of Jane Jacob’s DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES at the RSA last week.(You can hear it on the RSA events podcast on iTunes:

Jane Jacobs is undoubtedly less known in Britain than she should. Perhaps the title of her most famous book allows some to think that what she had to say does not cross the Atlantic, and that while she was in conflict with men like Robert Moses, post war Britain was a whole different set of issues: Britain, brought to its knees by World War Two and bombed to the ground by the Blitz, was in the process of rebuilding from the rubble.

Post war London and New York were undoubtedly different, but there were a surprising number of similarities and it is these that are worth considering. Although much is made of ‘the Ballet of Hudson Street’ as a folksy vision of an ideal urban community, surely this was not something that can only happen in America?

London, in fact had its own Jane Jacobs, who is too often overlooked as a crucial urban thinker because of his many other achievements. Michael Young, Lord Dartington was one of the political architects of post war Britain. In 1945 he wrote LET US FACE THE FUTURE which formed one of the main thrusts of the welfare state. He was also instrumental in setting up the Consumer Association, the Open University, invented the word ‘meritocracy’, and was a leading sociologist. In particular, he should be remembered for FAMILY AND KINSHIP IN EAST LONDON which was published in 1957, which certainly should stand next to AMERICAN CITIES as one of the defining critiques of the post war city and the dangers of large scale planning.

FAMILY AND KINSHIP is a mournful examination of the post war policies to cope with the problems of social housing in London after the Blitz. In particular, White alongside Peter Wilmot, studied the destruction of the traditional communities of Bethnal Green in East London. Following 1945, government policy was to eradicate poverty and poor housing as well as rebuild the city from the rubble. Bethnal Green, close by the London Docks, was particularly badly hit and was one of the first communities to be forced into improvements.Since 1945, it became the laboratory for ‘virtually every English experiment in public housing’. Many were forced to relocate in New Towns on the outskirts of London. Many peopled stayed in dire conditions rather than move to the New Towns because ‘they are attached to Mum and Dad, to the markets, to the pub and settlements, to Club Row and the London Hospital’. In time, many were forced into tower blocks.

As Young and Wilmott pleaded in their conclusions: ‘The sense of loyalty to each other amongst the inhabitants of a place like Bethnal Green is not due to buildings. . . In such a district community spirit does not have to be fostered, it is already there.’

Just in this quote alone one can see the connections between Young and Jane Jacobs. The ‘Ballet of Hudson Street’ was not just a New York phenomenon, but could also be found in 1950s Bethnal Green. Finding these similarities remind us that both were students not just of the city but of the texture and rhythms of community. Both books  should not solely be seen in their own spheres – sociology or urban planning – but read alongside each other.


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