It was late Spring 1958 (as I best recall) in New York City when a young Eric Britton, just out of the US Army and about to dig into the Graduate Faculties of Columbia, was – as young men will do — checking out the action in Washington Square Park in the Village on a warm spring day. When he ran into two little kids wearing a sandwich sign saying something like “Save the Square!”. The kids handed me a pamphlet and explained that they were there to help their mother, who was just over there (they pointed).
And that was how I first met Mrs. Jane Jacobs, hard at work on an at-first very lonely effort to save this precious bit of NYC public space from the depredations of Robert Moses plan — Moses was a high profile public official known as the “master builder” of mid-20th century New York City. His plan was to run an urban highway extension of Fifth Avenue over the concrete remains of what would once have been a beautiful and much used public park. It was clearly going to be a losing cause, but the lady over there decided to stick it out. And as she did others, unknowns and celebrities, gradually started to get behind her cause.
Isn’t it strange how we so rarely are aware when we accidentally stumble across some apparently small thing turns out make a significant change in our lives. Some two years later when I read her masterpiece, Death and Life of Great American Cities I started to look at cities in quite a different light. In fact, I can honestly say that it was Mrs. Jacob’s work and thinking that eventually got me into the sustainable cities/transportation field where I am still hard at work today.
Over the years I stayed in pretty close contact and worked with Mrs. Jacobs episodically but always grateful for her quiet, always modest wisdom and support. She was one of those rare people who when they talk to you give you the impression that you are smart. A great trick not to be forgotten.
Our last collaboration was a program that I pretty much headed up, starting on the theme of Car Free Days and from thence moving on to better and more important stuff. It was sponsored by the City of Toronto and the Sierra Club in 2004: The Toronto New Mobility Summit. Mrs. Jacobs was our star.
Mrs. Jacobs had long told me with a modest apologetic voice that she could really not get directly involved with any of my cities projects and collaborative work no matter how interesting, because her most precious contribution to the future would be in the pages of her books. I had long respected that but since this particular program was to take place in her now-home city of Toronto, I took the risk and she eventually gave in and took an active role in selling a New Mobility Agenda to the then largely unwilling local government of Toronto. But even with them dragging tier feet we lit some fires and found some people who have contributed greatly to the city over the last decade.
My point is this: As we talk and joust with the Penang government team today about redressing their mobility agenda, probably at times under pretty tough opposition from them, let us bear in mind that when Mrs. Jacobs took on the challenge of saving Washington Square Park and at the same time changing the way that smart and sensitive people began to think about their cities, that we can take her as our example. When she started out on her crusade to save the park, the city government of New York has already approved the plan to demolish the park. But Mrs. Jacob’s prevailed, clearly explained what the debate and issues were all about, and succeeded in getting the people of the city on her side.
There is a story told about Robert Moses extreme irritation when he learned that the fight to save the park was picking up steam and starting to get serious public support. He is said to have stormed out of a public hearing shouting: “There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers.”
That’s our challenge too.
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Bio: Educated as an international development economist, Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher and sustainability activist who has worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. Professor of Sustainable Development, Economy and Democracy at the Institut Supérieur de Gestion (Paris), he is also MD of EcoPlan Association, an independent advisory network providing strategic counsel for government and business on policy and decision issues involving complex systems, social-technical change, civil society and sustainable development. Founding editor of World Streets: The Politics of Transport in Cities | See Britton online at https://goo.gl/9CJXTh and @ericbritton