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Jane Jacobs, urbanism icon (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jane Jacobs, urbanism icon (Image: Tina Tiller)

OPINIONWellingtonFebruary 20, 2024

What would Jane Jacobs think of Wellington’s new District Plan?

Jane Jacobs, urbanism icon (Image: Tina Tiller)
Jane Jacobs, urbanism icon (Image: Tina Tiller)

The ‘mother of urban design’, Jane Jacobs advocated for lively, vibrant streets through mixed-use developments, new and old buildings, and a wise use of density. Stephen Maslin explores Wellington’s new District Plan through Jacobs’s writing. 

“Designing a dream city is easy; rebuilding a living one takes imagination”. Those words, written by Jane Jacobs in her first article for Fortune Magazine in 1958, started a revolution in the way people think about cities. 

Jacobs didn’t have a degree or any training in urban planning. She was an associate editor for Architectural Forum, who rose to prominence as an opponent of a plan to build an expressway through lower Manhattan, destroying Soho and Jacobs’s home neighbourhood of Greenwich Village. With a combination of grass roots activism and high-minded theory, she convinced the city to rethink its plan. 

Her ideas caught on. Today, Jacobs is known as the “mother of urban design”. Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered the most important text in urbanism. 

Jane Jacobs (Photo: Supplied)

At the core of Jacobs’s philosophy was the idea that cities are living organisms, not fossils to be preserved. They are part of an interconnected and diverse ecosystem. She advocated for mixed-use developments, new and old buildings, and wise use of density with a focus on creating lively, vibrant streets. Diversity was core to her beliefs – not just in terms of people, but buildings, shops, attractions, parks. Getting the ecosystem right creates life in a city, day and night. 

Wellington is rewriting its District Plan, which will potentially change some of the archaic and restrictive zoning rules that make it difficult and sometimes impossible to create mixed-use and diverse developments. The new plan is a chance to give people choice, to create an organic and diverse city. Changing the District Plan will allow us to develop better, we won’t be stuck maintaining vacant earthquake prone buildings. We can create mixed use developments of shops, townhouse and apartments. Within this plan we can create better transport choices and better public spaces. The new plan is a chance to give people choice, to create an organic and diverse city. If Jacobs was in Wellington today, she would have something to say.

Wellington from the sidewalks

“Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs” – Jane Jacobs

Jacobs believed in grassroots development, and the best people to know where to start are those who walk the streets and experience them firsthand. People around the world celebrate Jacobs’s memory with Jane’s Walks, an annual series of walking tours encouraging people to get out and pay closer attention to their neighbourhood. 

I suspect if Jacobs walked the streets of Wellington she would see death, but also life and opportunity. She would see vacant earthquake prone buildings that we keep because we cannot afford to repair them, but heritage status prevents us from destroying them. Walking Mount Victoria, she would see old beautiful villas, and decaying ones. In Mount Cook and Newtown she would see the chance for townhouses, apartments and infill development, she would love the mingle of people and diversity of shops. 

Walking through Karori, she’d see a chance for mixed use development and improved public transit to Zealandia, to showcase the beautiful green spaces in West Wellington. She would notice how people are pushed out to the suburbs, as far as Otaki and the Wairarapa, as the low density in the city continues to increase house prices and rates to stratospheric heights. She would oppose the destruction of the urban environment with “four lanes to the planes”, instead promoting more pragmatic ideas of public and active transit. Jacobs would see opportunity in the street spaces we already have for people to mingle, live and share stories. 

Diversity is the lifeblood of a city

“Everyone is aware that tremendous numbers of people concentrate in city downtowns and that, if they did not, there would be no downtown to amount to anything – certainly not one with much downtown diversity” – Jane Jacobs

The new District Plan isn’t about destruction of the old villas, it’s about creating life, vitality, and opportunity through diverse city planning. Diversity at its heart is the core of a city. Right now, the district plan hinders us, but with the new plan we can encourage a building boom of apartments and townhouses; density created by demand. 

With the new plan we could now have a choice: live in your old villa, nobody is forcing you to destroy it; have a record shop in a cool grungy shop in Newtown, or the ground floor of a swanky new apartment just next door. Housing that won’t place you in life indentured servitude to a bank. A row of shops that you can walk down, a cafe, clothing boutique, a grocer, a seamstress and restaurant with apartments above. A place that’s busy day and night, a place full of diversity and life.  

If Jacobs were here with us, advocating for Wellington’s district plan, she would want the opportunity to improve density, while retaining your old villa. Let’s not see the death of Wellington as it decays into a museum. Let’s look to see the life of Wellington as it grows and thrives with newfound opportunity.

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