imaginative planning preserves the city protects countryside

Jane Jacobs, born in 1916, held a lifelong fascination with cities. Trained in no particular subject she wrote extensively on urban design, urban…

Jane Jacobs, born in 1916, held a lifelong fascination with cities.

Trained in no particular subject she wrote extensively on urban design, urban history, regional economics, morality of the economy and ethics.

Living most of her life in New York City and Toronto, her knowledge of cities came from living in them.

She died Monday in Toronto.

Her writing has greatly influenced my work and that of those people I mention in this column.

Living in Whitehorse has its distinct advantages. The best of which is its moderate size.

The world, according to McArthur fellow Mike Davis, is fast becoming a place of mega-cities that are for the most part nothing more than mega-slums. Whitehorse can avoid the pitfalls of other cities by continuing to do what it is already doing: planning.

But, the more serious questions: What type of planning, and who does it?

Within this larger picture there are several statistics that bear mentioning. In 1950 there were 86 cities with populations over one million.

In 2006 there are just over 400. By 2015 it is expected at least 550 cities will boast populations in excess of one million.

Cities worldwide are growing at an average rate of one million people per day. And today, over two-thirds of the world’s population lives in cities.

These numbers lead us to a darker reality:

Of the world’s three billion workers — most of whom live in cities — one billion are either unemployed or underemployed.

If there is a disaster waiting to happen, this is it.

The world cities are of course a macrocosm of Whitehorse. Whitehorse is growing (too fast for some, not fast enough for others) and we have a core of unemployed and underemployed.

And while we are not yet in a crisis — and will not likely be in one for the foreseeable future — Davis’ work is still relevant.

“Instead of being a focus for growth and prosperity, the cities have become a dumping ground for a surplus population working in unskilled, unprotected and low-wage informal service industries and trade,” according to Davis.

If this is true, and we have every reason to believe it is, city planners must address it.

Along with zoning, greenbelts, roads and bikeways, cities must effectively get into the business of people planning.

This of course involves targeted education, job creation, subsidized housing, daycare, childcare, welfare, and healthcare. All of which spawn political firestorms.

One end of the extreme maintains people can and should look after themselves; buck up, fly right, if you snooze you lose.

The other extreme caters to the philosophy that the system is highly unfair, squeezing life, hope and opportunity from all but the cultural elite.

Whatever extreme you espouse we do know, in the words of urban planner Onookome Okome: “We live in the age of the city. The city is everything to us — it consumes us, and for that reason we glorify it.”

Our propensity to glorify city life is, of course, a danger not only for city dwellers, but also for those who maintain it is more wholesome to continue to live in the country.

As our cities explode our towns and villages implode.

This is a grave danger.

Without real foresight on the part of both city and village “stewards,” our seemingly inevitable evolution to cities will leave us in a lose-lose.

The Yukon, if not careful, could quickly become an expression of this lose-lose.

While urban, municipal and territorial policy makers continue to butt heads over “philosophical responsibilities” inherent in the glorification of the city and the demise of the village, we all suffer.

Planners and policy makers must acknowledge the fact that much of our food, serenity, and stability come from the countryside.

Rural communities must credit city living with being what it is and what it can become — vibrant, enlightening and enduring.

Neither will have much chance of success without the other. Both, in order to be of much help to the other, must recognize, foster and legitimize some form of “economic democracy.”

Food is grown in the countryside. Territorial and city government must acknowledge this, promote this, and support this. Food production is work for everybody. It is the most practical, immediate and necessary form of urban-rural co-operation.

City folks need solitude and they find it in villages and hamlets that dot the surrounding landscape and they can find it in the undeveloped wilderness.

Rural living and wilderness values can only make it if cities know their proper “place” within the economic democracy fueling city and village alike.

What we should not forget (yet always manage to) is that the way to preserve the city is to protect the countryside — which necessarily includes it rural residents.

And the most sensible avenue to designing sustainable cites it to acknowledge the inherent wisdom of village life.

City historian John Berger once wrote, “The promise is that again and again, from the garbage, the scattered feathers, the ashes and broken bodies, something new and beautiful may be born.”

Imaginative planning applies Berger’s words equally to both city and town.