Design thinking: 1961

When Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961, planners and politicians restricted themselves to questions such as “What are our plans for executing urban renewal? How can we move cars and trucks most efficiently through the city?”

The result of this kind of thinking brought alienation and economic blight as communities were destroyed and families were forced to relocate. One of Jacobs’ most valuable contributions was to change the nature of planning conversations to encompass quality of life issues: “What elements contribute to vibrant communities?  What options are there for moving through the city?

These kinds of questions were based on her observations, rather than theory derived from a mechanical view of the world. Jacobs looked at evidence on the street—to what was actually happening—and saw the advantages of combining work and living spaces. She recognized that human needs for social connections and the safety of  “eyes on the street” were fed by diversity of use and starved by segregation and uniformity.

In their recently published book GENIUS OF COMMON SENSE: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch write for “ages 10 to 100.”

Genius of Common Sense

The authors not only bring together pieces of history and personal insight into Jacobs’ extraordinary life, they also provide a memorable story for younger readers that sheds light on critical thinking and how people can fervently cling to ideas that do not serve their own interests.

Today’s notion of design thinking avoids jumping at answers to the wrong questions, and resists neat solutions that fail to scratch the surface of possibilities. Another basic tenet of design thinking is to place more faith in observation than conventional wisdom. It strikes me that the advantages of this rigorous, lateral, whole brain approach can be demonstrated not only through current case studies, but also historically by reflecting on the struggles and triumphs of Jane Jacobs’ life. Understanding the consequences of ignoring the design thinking lessons of 50 years and more are worth considering, it seems to me. 

– Sharon VanderKaay


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