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Jane Jacobs on “differences, not duplications”

Rereading Jane Jacobs‘s classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and came across the following on p.169, in the chapter on “The Uses of City Neighborhoods”:

Almost nobody travels willingly from sameness to sameness and repetition to repetition, even if the physical effort required is trivial.

Differences, not duplications, make for cross-use and hence for a person’s identification with an area greater than his immediate street network.  Monotony is the enemy of cross-use and hence of functional unity.  As for Turf, planned or unplanned, nobody outside the Turf can possibly feel a natural identity of interest with it or with what it contains.

I find Jacobs’s insights so compelling and rich because they apply not just to cities, but to life-systems.  What she has to say about “differences, not duplications” applies equally well to all the places of human use: cities, but also natural and digital/virtual places, and user interfaces of every kind.

She goes on to add the following, pp.169-170:

Centers of use grow up in lively, diverse districts, just as centers of use occur on a smaller scale in parks, and such centers count especially in district identification if they contain also a landmark that comes to stand for the place symbolically and, in a way, for the district.  But centers cannot carry the load of district identification by themselves; differing commercial and cultural facilities, and different-looking scenes, must crop up all through.  Within this fabric, physical barriers, such as huge traffic arteries, too large parks, big institutional groupings, are functionally destructive because they block cross-use.

This is something to think about with regard to Victoria’s Tourism precinct: the district defined by two giant architectural landmarks, built at the end of the 19th / beginning of the 20th century by Francis Rattenbury, The Legislature and The Empress.

I never before thought about how these structures (which can arguably be called “big institutional groupings”) are not just “district defining” (and used by NIMBYs who live near the district as a reason to thwart all other adjacent development), but are also in a very real sense “functionally destructive because they block cross-use.”  Thinking about them in those terms helps explain the curious sense of artifice and sterility that sometimes pervades this district.

Now that the Empress (in the 1980s?) blocked off the grand front door — designed by Rattenbury as a front door to the Inner Harbour, a door symmetrically centred on the building and the Causeway — effectively killing the lobby, and instead moved the entrance off-center, for use by guests only (i.e., literally no more cross-use of the building by the ordinary people), the potential for destructiveness to the district is even bigger.

Not that the Empress should be reduced, no.  What should happen is for life to grow up around and beside it, and that includes additional new development unrelated to the hotel, but still in the district.

Click here for a closeup image of the hotel’s original main wing, which shows at centre the former grand lobby entrance (now blocked off, although the barriers aren’t visible in the photo).  Click here for an image where you can see the new entrance, housed in the comparatively tiny, conservatory-style off-centre pavilion, toward the left side of the hotel.

This new pavilion entrance was added so that the original main lobby entrance, which attracted into the lobby hundreds of gawkers, both tourist and local, could be blocked off and the hotel could strengthen control over who could enter and therefore use the premises.  With this measure, the hotel protected itself, but cross-use by non-specialized users (i.e., users other than guests) was killed off, too.

That also means that you won’t find the Jane Jacobses of today, casually using this space to have a drink and conversation (we won’t mention the cigarette, now banned everywhere in Victoria)…

1 Comment

  1. […] had already blogged about this at the beginning of the month (Jane Jacobs on “differences, not duplications”), but it really became clear for me in the article I just finished today.  Strengthening the […]

    Pingback by » Another confirmation that cross-use is crucial: “Reinventing Grand Army Plaza” Yule Heibel’s Post Studio © 2003-2008 — September 30, 2008 #

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