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Jane and Goliath

I recently reread an article by Roberta Brandes Gratz, an award-winning journalist and urban critic, entitled Jane Jacobs and the Power of Women Planners. It’s a poignant article with Jane Jacobs at its epicenter exploring the implications of women’s voices being far from the epicenter of planning discussions and decisions.

This is a topic that interests me as I’m an advocate of amplifying women’s voices in planning, or anywhere for that matter. But what struck me in the article was, in fact, a question Gratz poses through a story about Jacobs “whether cities should be developed with big plans and inspiring visions or modest steps and incremental change?”

I can’t tell you the number of articles I’ve read lately that suggest we need new leaders with bolder visions to effect massive change. Or the number of conference speakers. Or the number of foundation websites. Or the number of newspaper articles. We are bombarded with this idea that you need to go big or go home. But for Jacobs “big plans lead to big mistakes and stifle imagination and alternatives … big plans (are) routinizers, formulas, smootherers.”

I’m a fan of big ideas but I think Jacobs unearths a powerful truth that is slowly starting to take root in the social consciousness of the day.

Take Jane Wolff. She’s a professor at University of Toronto and the creative brain behind GUTTER to GULF, a website designed to extend and support efforts by grassroots organizations to develop resilient water management strategies for New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina there were lots of big plans and bold visions. Wolf asked instead “what’s the smallest thing we can do?”

Or Malcolm Gladwell who, in commenting on the Occupy Movement, recognized the role of revolutionary thought and action but argued that, more importantly, “the tweaker is one of the noblest and most important of all roles in innovation.”

And then there’s Ian Brown who wrote in the Globe and Mail about What the Gateway Commission Could Learn from an Oil Sands Pioneer. He paints a brief picture of the life of Joseph Burr Tyrrell, the Canadian geologist/paleontologist/explorer/, particularly his interaction with Ahyout, an Inuit chief who saved Tyrrell’s life by drawing a map to show him how to reach Hudson’s Bay and thereby escape winter, dysentery, and dead-end river routes.

“It’s hard to fathom how they worked it out. Yet somehow, together, surrounded by their mutual need and the terrain they were trying to map, by translating the specific physical experiences of the route ahead into marks on a piece of paper, the strangers fashioned a mutual understanding.”

Brown goes on to say that “Right away, I could see it showed what kind of a country we once were, back when we were still modest enough to assume there was always more than one answer to a question.”

Apply this to perhaps the most striking example of big idea planning Canada has seen – the Alberta Tar Sands – as Brown does, and it makes me wonder. What if we applied Jacobs’ modest steps and incremental change? What if we asked of the pipeline developers and engineers what’s the smallest thing we can do? What if we assumed there was more than one answer to the question?

Of course we would be criticized by many for being unrealistic, or worse. But we could use more voices – women’s, children’s, men’s, elder’s– asking smaller questions. Asking, as Jacobs always did, “about things close to home – street, neighborhood and community.”