Couchiching Online
nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button nav button

73nd Annual Summer Conference, August 5–8, 2004

Acceptance Remarks for the Couchiching Award of Excellence in Public Policy Leadership

Remarks made by Bobbi Speck

I am pleased and honored to accept this award for Jane Jacobs.

I should tell you right off that I am a last minute stand-in for someone who couldn’t attend. I didn’t have time to research and write a speech, but happily have been given one which was prepared by Mark Lovewell, a friend of Couchiching, the co-publisher with Helen Walsh of the Literary Review of Canada (known as the LRC), and a very fine writer. He is attending the conference, and I would like him to stand so we can acknowledge his contribution to tonight.

Such serendipity – that’s Couchiching.

But before I read Mark’s speech I want to tell you that I know Jane Jacobs, and have been in the activist trenches with her on various campaigns over the years; and once, recently, when someone wanted to introduce us, Jane graciously said, “Oh, we’re old friends”, invoking that camaraderie with her customary eye-twinkle.

Like Jane Jacobs, I grew up in New York City. I remember one occasion when I was a little kid, going shopping with my mother at Macy’s. As we walked along the sidewalk, my mother said, “This is where the Crosstown Expressway is going to be.”

In those days the department stores had great old elevators with brass folding gates, and real human beings, in uniforms, who called out the floors.

And I imagined:

Welcome to Macy’s. Going up. . .

2nd Floor: Men’s Haberdashery

3rd Floor: Ladies’ Lingerie

4th Floor: Children’s Clothing and Toys

5th Floor: Crosstown Expressway

6th Floor: . . .

I didn’t know back then that development was often preceded by destruction, and that they were integrally related.

The Crosstown Expressway was never built – thanks to Jane Jacobs.

Years later, in Toronto, I read about the proposed and imminent Spadina Expressway; indeed, the system of five expressways that would surround and crisscross the city of Toronto, like one of those Etch-a-Sketch sets gone amok.

By then I had been to places like L.A. and Syracuse, and had seen the devastating effects of expressways on city cores. So, with my neighbor, I decided we should just stop those five expressways, starting with Spadina! And we ventured out bravely, naively – like little Hobbits – making speeches around the city and suburbs of Metro Toronto, urging everyone to join us and crush the five-headed monster.

The year was 1968. A stranger with a New York accent (music to my ears!) came to one of our neighborhood meetings and volunteered to help: it was Jane Jacobs. She became our Gandalf, and we owe much of our success to her.

This was only the beginning of Jane’s contributions to Toronto, to which we are giving recognition tonight, and which I am pleased to accept on her behalf, reading now the speech prepared by Mark Lovewell:

As our president, David McGown mentioned, the award honours an individual who has been a leader in defining public policy alternatives in Canada and is commited to refining and articulating a particular vision – a vision that has been controversial in the past, but has now received general recognition for its effectiveness.

Many of you already know a great deal about Jane’s career. Tonight we will merely touch on some of the most salient aspects of her contributions to public affairs. Her interest in public issues started almost seventy years ago, when in the 1930s she helped run a community centre in a poverty-stricken region of North Carolina. Her vital commitment to public affairs continues to this day. (Jane, as most of you know, has not learned the meaning of the word retirement. You might say she has no off-button!) Though for more than fifty years she lived and worked in the United States, it is here in Canada that she has made a name for herself ever since moving to Toronto in 1968. She was already well-known when she arrived, thanks to her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities. With this revolutionary book, it is no exaggeration to say that Jane turned a half century of thinking within the field of urban planning on its head. She showed that, instead of trying to turn cities into futile planners’ paradises, it is necessary to recognize the creative benefits that arise when cities are allowed to evolve as diverse, living organisms.

With Death and Life, Jane prompted a shift in the whole area of urban planning – this by someone with virtually no formal training in the area. Hers were the insights of a perceptive outsider, whose own postsecondary education had centred on the study of stenography at a business school, and then several years of general studies at Columbia University, until she developed a passionate interest in the problems associated with urban redevelopment and taught herself what she needed to know to become an expert. It is a model that those of us here at this conference who are attending not as accredited experts but as inquisitive laypeople can’t help but find inspiring. What was it that allowed Jane to see what generations of urban planners had been unable to? Toronto-based urban designer Ken Greenberg, who wrote one of the triad of articles recently published in the Literary Review of Canada in honour of Jane’s most recent book, elegantly summarized her style of thinking: “Her arguments were built from the ground up,” he notes, “with in-depth observations of everyday places – streets, blocks, parks and buildings. Her appreciation for ’self-organizing’ survival mechanisms was coupled with frustration with the kind of institutional wrong-headedness – bureaucratic, political and pseudo-scientific – that impedes the creative process of human adaptation.”1

This endlessly questioning, practical side of Jane’s work is something we can’t help but appreciate in assessing her public career. As a visionary, she has also never been shy to immerse herself in everyday activism. It has been said that her love affair with cities knows no bounds, and like any lover, she rages against those who want to harm her love.2 Some of you in this room – like me -- have a close personal knowledge of this passionate love affair, thanks to your involvement in Toronto’s urban renewal movement during the 1970s. With Jane’s leadership role in this movement, she showed how important activism is in helping to ensure the enduring impact of a public vision such as hers. It is a side of Jane’s career that certainly did not end in the 1970s – in fact it has lasted right up to the present day. As an activist, Jane has never been afraid to court political opposition. She has always spoken her mind no matter who might object. Nor is she in the least constrained by political ideology. In fact, she has made it very clear just how harmful she considers ideology to be.

Another characteristic that marks Jane’s thinking is her endless inquisitiveness and intellectual energy. She could easily have stopped with her contributions to urban planning, and her subsequent work as an activist, and still achieved a formidable public reputation. But starting in the 1960s she chose to extend her work into a completely new setting. Theoretical economics is not an area most of us find fascinating, but for Jane it was. Her interest was spawned by a desire to understand how it is that cities contribute not just to human creativity, but to prosperity as well. The answers, she found, were comparable to those she had devised in her work on urban planning. It is individual creativity and market diversity that drive cities’ prosperity. Her distinctive economic model which showed this is one that liberally uses metaphors drawn from ecology – a now-popular style of reasoning that my economist friends tell me she helped to pioneer within the discipline. Again, hers is a model derived by someone self-taught in the area, yet it is one that has captured the interest of major economists, some of whom have publicly credited her seminal impact in developing new theories of economic growth.

Again, these contributions to economics, by themselves, would have been enough to cement Jane’s reputation. But still, her inquisitiveness and intellectual energy were yet to be exhausted. More recently, she extended her vision again. This time, it was ethics and their social context that fell under her analytical scrutiny. To this topic she brought a finely tuned morality – one that is particularly appropriate to the theme of this year’s conference. Indeed, we think it is fair to say that Jane epitomizes a deeply moral outlook in a way unmatched by few other thinkers today. It was in a book she published in 1992, Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, that she first set out her startlingly provocative theory about what underlies the moral tensions we find in human societies throughout history. Like her previous books, Systems of Survival managed to upset conventional thinking at every turn.

Now, over ten years later, she has continued in this same path with the just-published Dark Age Ahead – her ninth book, and by no means her last. This new book brims with dismay, and even occasional rage, at what Jacobs sees as present-day lapses of ethical judgment in contemporary society. Journalist Michael Valpy compared Jane, as we find her in Dark Age, with the Old Testament prophet Amos. Amos, as many of you may remember, was the ethically driven and self-effacing denouncer of the moral laxness and opulence. His most famous line – “Let justice roll down like waters” – happens to be inscribed in large letters outside a Bloor Street church just a few blocks from Jane’s house in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto. And though she is not quite so explicit as Amos was in her prescriptions for the future, her warnings are pretty dire nonetheless. “She comes to moral prophecy,” says Mr Valpy, “as she came to her understanding of cities, by the brilliance of her Method: first recognize examples of behaviour; next look for patterns; finally make generalizations and draw conclusions.” As always, there is a connecting thread that runs through Jane’s wide-ranging vision.

We would be the last to contend that Jacobs’ journey as a visionary is at an end. She is only 88 years young, after all, and there are many worlds of public enquiry yet to be dissected by her razor-sharp intelligence. But one thing is already abundantly clear – there are few if any other thinkers in Canada today so original in their ideas, so influential in their legacy, and so vindicated by subsequent trends. She is a woman who, in a multitude of ways, is pre-eminently deserving of the honour this conference has chosen to bestow on her.


1. Literary Review of Canada (May 2004), p. 3.

2. Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, p. 22.