|Urban activist Jane Jacobs believed a diverse range of buildings is important in creating a vibrant city. A few years ago, John photographed this construction site for yet another Vancouver tower, with similar ones in the background.|
|Another view of the building site, photographed by John.|
"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them." -- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Every day on my walk to work, I used to delight in passing an elderly office building that stood out from everything else on the block. Only a few storeys high, it could have lived in Dickens' London, with its tall, narrow wooden doors ornamented with brass fittings, its old-fashioned wooden windows around which ivy climbed and trailed. One day the redevelopment sign went up, and within a couple of years, the site was just one more of the indistinguishable glass and concrete towers that make up most of downtown Vancouver.
My concern was mainly aesthetic -- the charm of the building amidst the blandness -- but urban activist Jane Jacobs' interests are much more practical. Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, exploring what makes cities thrive or die, cites the existence of old buildings as one of four "indispensable" conditions for generating "exuberant diversity" on city streets.
It's not just old buildings that are needed, of course; if everything is old, it's a sign the city is failing. The key is a mixture of old, middle and new that encourages a wide diversity of businesses -- bigger and smaller, more and less profitable -- which Jacobs sees as the key to exciting, vibrant cities. "The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce," she writes.
Half a century after Jacobs wrote those words, I wonder what she would think of a downtown that couldn't retain an old ivy-covered office building or two? And what of the street life around the highrise towers that sprang up in their stead? Would she consider it exuberantly diverse?