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American Society of Landscape Architects


July 2005 Issue

The Greening of the City
The author of the Death and Life of Great American Cities reflects on bringing nature back downtown and landscape architects' role therein.

By Jane Jacobs

The Greening of the City
American Hydrotech Inc

Even the most startling cultural and economic developments do not arise out of thin air. They are always built upon prior developments and upon a certain amount of serendipity and chance. And their consequences are unpredictable, even to their originators and the pioneers who believed in them and initiated them. After all, the first financially successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us remember when plastics were useful for little except toys, kitchen gadgets, and decorative touches that tastemakers derided for their vulgarity. That was before strong, lightweight plastics, reinforced with fibers of glass, boron, or carbon, replaced metals in the making of springs and joints. These plastics transformed serious spectacle frames like mine. At last I have frames that never hurt my nose and ears and that last for years without weakened joints. These plastics were originated by the makers of tennis rackets and of rods for surf and sport fishing.

I don't know whether the string of encounters that led from a fishing rod to my spectacle frames included an eavesdropper excited and indiscreet enough to blurt out, "I know somebody you ought to talk to!" But I do know that this is the kind of thing that happens in a society where people commonly believe the business of the whole world is their business. This seems to be what the developers of the boastful old office towers thought: They invited the public in to gape at their grand lobbies, buy newspapers and candy bars, use telephones, and ride in their elevators to the roof to share the stunning views.

Today, those developers are gone. Their open and inviting towers were no match for the lure of the suburbs. For some time, skyscrapers haven't been the preferred headquarters for self-respecting corporations, nor for their legions of administrators, designers, researchers, engineers, and marketers. In the Toronto area, where I live, much of this work has decamped to converted factory buildings in the suburbs, and in the United States to suburban office parks. In neither instance is the migration from the towers to the suburbs a reaction to the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center towers. In the Toronto area, the trend began two decades ago and was well established by the late 1980s. In New York, the trend began still earlier, although the city tried to block it, and sometimes did, by offering corporations, especially those with high public profiles, inducements to keep their headquarters in the city.

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