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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 30.0° F  Fog/Mist
The Daily
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Citizen Dave: Stalking Jane Jacobs
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Jane Jacobs, posing here in front of her home at 69 Albany Street in Toronto, passed away in 2006.
Jane Jacobs, posing here in front of her home at 69 Albany Street in Toronto, passed away in 2006.

Over spring break, I took a whirlwind tour of cities. Dianne and I went to New York to visit some friends, to and from Toronto when I gave a speech to a transportation conference in Hamilton, Ontario, and finally, Chicago's northwest suburbs... mostly by mistake.

It turned out to be something of a Jane Jacobs tour. The author of the most influential book about urban planning of the last half century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she lived in both New York and Toronto -- specifically, Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, and the Annex neighborhood adjacent to the University of Toronto.

I went to visit her homes in both places and scope out the neighborhoods that she made famous. I was a Jane Jacobs groupie, though she died six years ago. For city geeks this was like a trip to Graceland and Tupelo, Mississippi.

What I found in both cities were thriving, funky, and fun places, though Greenwich Village is a whole lot more upscale these days compared to the Annex in Toronto, which maintains strong Bohemian influences from the nearby campus.

Both are served by lots of transportation options. We took the subway down to the Village and walked the rest of the time. In Toronto, I road a shared bike (though shamefully not a B-cycle, but an inferior product) to the (gasp!) streetcar (Toronto has miles of streetcar lines and the city has not been destroyed -- go figure), then walked around Jacobs' neighborhood before grabbing another shared bicycle back to our hotel.

All the while I was surrounded by tall buildings (sometimes very tall), and yet people mixed easily on the street, proving that you can have "human scale" even in a forest of big and imposing structures. What matters isn't how tall the building is, but how it interacts with the street and sidewalk in front of it.

Contrast that to our awful experience in and around Schaumburg. We drove to Chicago to get the cheapest flight out of O'Hare, and on the way back we decided to stop at Ikea for inexpensive (yet really good) Swedish meatballs and inexpensive (yet stylish) furniture. Schaumburg and environs are a spaghetti of freeways, eight-lane streets, huge parking lots, and pretty big buildings (say, 8 to 10 stories) surrounded by more parking lots and occasionally some grass.

I had to stop four times for directions -- and like most guys I do not ask for directions. At one point we could see the bright yellow and blue store glowing in the distance like water in the desert, but there was no clear way to get there. And once you do find your way, you see sidewalks without a single person on them. Just wide roads, cars, and blocks of buildings surrounded by parking.

Now, Schaumburg is built at a truly inhuman scale, even though the buildings are much shorter than those in New York or Toronto or, for that matter, in Chicago right down the freeway. My point is that the height of buildings has nothing at all to do with whether a place has "human scale" or not. I can point to lots of neighborhoods with skyscrapers that have great street life. What obliterates human scale are wide roads and big parking lots.

More on my urban adventures tomorrow.

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