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Jane Jacobs – urban visionary

It was heartening to see so many people coming together for a community movie night in South Sydney Uniting Church on Raglan Street. Local residents watched Citizen Jane: The Battle for the City (Matt Tyrnauer, 2016), an exciting and inspiring documentary about Jane Jacobs, urban activist.

Thomas Chailloux with projected image of Ross Smith (the gathering marked the first anniversary of Ross’s death) Photo: Lyn Turnbull
Thomas Chailloux with projected image of Ross Smith (the gathering marked the first anniversary of Ross’s death) Photo: Lyn Turnbull

Citizen Jane focuses mostly on the epic opposition of style and views about urban planning in the 1960s between Robert Moses, a powerful public official who referred to himself as the “Master Builder” of New York, and Jane Jacobs, a local resident, journalist and urban visionary. After the film several residents were canvassed for their reaction.

Some were reminded of another classic story. “Citizen Jane is like a David and Goliath Story. Jane Jacobs took on Robert Moses, a man with tremendous power and influence”, said Yvonne, while Jim noted that it was exciting to see “activist Jane Jacobs as the people’s David, outwitting Robert Moses, the developers’ Goliath”. For one anonymous contributor it was also “the way Jane Jacobs stuck firmly to her point of view” that made her an admirable activist: “She didn’t negotiate or try to deal, she just opposed Moses who wanted a sterile sort of urban landscape.”

The movie is more than just its two characters however, and Miriam expressed this beautifully. Citizen Jane is “a story of a battle of ideas about how cities work – on the one hand an ideal, uniform model of the city imposed from above, and on the other, an emergent complexity of lived realities. It is the story of a woman who, having keenly observed and theorised vibrant urban neighbourhoods, stood with others in defence of them when demolition and motorways loomed.” Yvonne commented that Moses “had a vision of a modern city, a place of tall buildings and expressways, but Jane Jacobs had a vision too …”

These visions differ because the perspective and approach of the two urban planners differed. Moses looked at the city from the sky, influenced by modernist ideas and super blocks concepts. He saw grids, networks, and tried to accommodate cars and goods. Jacobs looked at the city from the street. She saw human interaction in the form of “eyes on the street” as a protection from crime, and the hustle and bustle of the crowd as giving the city special vitality. As Yvonne summed up: “The city was for people and not buildings, and urban planners should look at how people live their lives and plan around that.”

The movie inspired people in different ways. For our anonymous contributor, Jane Jacobs “wanted to maintain a sense of place, such as we have at Waterloo now, and will shortly lose”. Miriam called the movie an “inspiring film for citizens of Sydney” which “shows how communities under threat can successfully resist with dignity, creativity and persistence”. Jim also praised “the doco’s relevance for today’s development-mad Sydney”, and called for “plans with massive and undoubted community involvement” in order to “envision a future which comes up with the best possible outcome for everyone”.

There are important lessons to be learned from this film by those in power. Jim recommends the NSW Premier Ms Berejiklian should “have a good look at Citizen Jane”, just like Waterloo residents did!

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