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January 8, 2015 / Leo Hollis

The power of Jane Washing

In a recent article I refer to ‘Jane Washing’, [http://www.shareable.net/blog/why-startup-urbanism-will-fail-us] as a way of describing how many people who are focussed on the development of the new city, adopt the appearance of Jane Jacobs without learning the true lessons of her ideas. I wonder if the name stands up to scrutiny, and can be usefully adopted as a way of identify an increasing practise, rhetoric, imagery, and so on, that circles around so many debates on the city – from place-making, realty publicity, planning propaganda to community building.

To return to the source. In ‘Death…’ Jacobs writes one of the most vibrant and thrilling portraits of urban life: the view from the doorstep at 555 Hudson Street, West Village, across the course of an ordinary day. Here she observes how trust and a social complexity that defines one kind of urban community permeates relationships and the general temperature of the street:

‘never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations  . . . Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its moorings to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son in law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber bringing out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s supervisor depositing her chunky three year old with a toy mandolin on the stoop.

And so it continues… with the lunch time crowd; the early evening games of the local teenagers, ‘a time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lee of the stoop with bottle tops and plastic cowboys’. Until the end of the day when all that was left was the muffled sounds of parties, singing, the distant siren of the police car. She sums it up with this simple conclusion: ‘Something is always going on, the ballet is never at a halt, but the general effect is peaceful and the general tenor is leisurely. People who know well such animate city streets will know how it is.’

This is the kind of emergent urbanism that is simulated in the developer’s videos that are used to advertise all new projects. It is seen in the pixelated couples and children that fill up the supposed public space that will be, displayed in their perfect interactions.

Originally I was looking at Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project and how the re-creation of the one down at heel old centre of the city as the co-working capital of the world, was just another way of talking about the violence of gentrification. In his original dream, Hsieh wanted to do more than just build a company town, he wanted to create a city based on costumer service ethos. This is the kind of marketing clap-trap that says things like ‘Move fast, and break things’.

This liturgy of disruption was based on the notion that creativity is based on unexpected coming together- the serendipity of the street corner. This, however, was reduced to a meaningless calculus of ‘collisionability’. Note, again the violence in the language. While giving the impression of being a city for laid-back cereal eaters who wanted to hang out and do great stuff, it offered inequality.

This is ‘Jane Washing’: While taking on the image of the street ballet it forgets another of Jacob’s key notions about what makes a neighbourhood, as she notes: ‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.’ It is not just what you do, but how you do it, and for whom it is done.

We urbanist should take some of the blame for this slippage. In our celebration of ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ we often forget where it came from. It is too ­often forgotten in the hagiographic portrait of Jacobs that proliferate so much writing about the city today that she wrote in anger. The power of ‘The Death . . .’, is not its reassuring portrait of neighbourhood life, but in its wrath. It is a political book that takes on the most powerful forces in New York, Robert Moses, the city post­war ‘Master Planner’ and refuses to give an inch. Jacob’s description of the street ballet was a stinging rebuke to Moses’s plans to demolish parts of Greenwich Village to accommodate the LOMEX, Lower Manhattan Expressway. This was a protest that Jacobs believed in, to the extent that after one public hearing where she held the stage and organised a walk out, she was arrested for disturbing the peace. In the Post on the next day, it was reported that she ‘couldn’t be arrested for a better cause.’

This is why we can sometimes be fooled by ideas like ‘the co-working capital of the World’ because it sounds right. This is also true of the Bloomberg mantra ‘Building like Moses, with Jacobs in mind’ with the hope that lessons had finally been learnt, and the circled squared. Of course, that project ended in up-zoning, rampant inequality and the kind of luxury concentration camps growing up around Hudson Yards.

Perhaps the most clear example of Jane Washing in London is the Garden Bridge. Explore the recent planning images used for the planning application process that has recently been accept by the GLA, and Mayor Boris Johnson. The designs show an oasis in the centre of the city. Couples wander through the eternal springtime. It is never congested – there are few children, it is a place of young couples. There is time for contemplation. it is always morning, a new day. The perspective is always towards the east, and towards the financial capital which glistens.

In most cases, it is fair to say, there are few criticism of the actual design, composed by Thomas Hetherwick’s studio and ARUP. Rather the problem can be found not in the ‘what’ but the ‘why’? and the ‘Who?’ Who is the bridge for. Even before it is built it has set out the rules of who belongs and who does’t as if the definition of its citizenship is as important as its structure.

It is a place of couples and families, but not groups. Any number over eight needs to get permission before arrival. This might mean some kind of ticketing. It will be shut between midnight and 6am. there are rules for bikes, too, and clearly if they are planning for 300,000 on a busy Saturday and only 2,500 can be on it at any one time – this will neither look like the pictures nor feel like a free, and open space. In fact while give the image of being a green and embracing environment, it will result in only a very fragile place.

These are not free spaces. They are not public spaces. They have nothing in common with Jacob’s observations of what makes a city work. In fact, these places accelerate inequality, and exacerbate difference. ‘Jane washing’ is a form of disguised exclusion because it makes those who are not welcome disappear. They are the things that are broken in the velocity of disruption, and crushed by the violence of collisionability.

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