When you hear ‘You can’t fight City Hall’ think of Jane Jacobs, who did. A recently released film (Citizen Jane: Battle for the City) about this journalist / campaigner who fought to save urban communities in the US and Canada from destructive development (famously Robert Moses who nearly succeeded in razing Lower Manhattan to the ground to build a 4-lane highway in the ‘60s.) has lessons and reverberations for us all.

And for Businesses.

Critics point to her having shaped our thinking about how cities work.  She may also help us to think more freshly about how businesses work.  In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ published in 1961, she champions the idea of ‘vitality’ in cities, of the relationship between diversity and vitality.  Critic Paul Goldberger described Jacobs’ finest quality as “a willingness to doubt the received wisdom and trust our eyes instead”. (FT article here – you may need to be a subscriber to view)

Unlike the City Hall Planners and Developers (The Board?) who relied on theory, financials, control and distance to devise and implement their plans, she (those who work in the business?) walked the streets and watched closely what happened, how things happened, and hypothesised why they happened.  The learning for any of us involved in helping businesses and business leaders ‘be better’ is powerful.

What keeps people safe in cities? Not security guards but ‘eyes on the street’.
(Let everyone see / know what’s going on)

What generates activity and creativity? Not planned zones but unusual combinations of diverse people, cultures and skills.  (Difference, freedom, serendipity)

What ensures neighbourhood success and regeneration? Not planned schemes, but sufficient development money and many different approaches and ideas.  (Support and trust and diversity)

The least comfortable lesson is a direct challenge to what we recognise (and encourage) as good ‘management’ in our organisations.  “A city that can be understood is a city that is dead”.

Perhaps vitality in business organisations demands ‘understanding’ less and watching more.

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