Through a bittersweet history of public space, Jackson tells us what is organic and ethereal about life in cities, from markets to the freeway
Some of the best thoughts about tomorrow's urbanism come from yesterday's observations.
A case in point is a quick-read essay entitled "The Discovery of the Street," by J.B. Jackson (1909-1996), one of the 20th century's most noted commentators on the American landscape.
Jackson tells us what is organic, wondrous, and ethereal about life in cities, through a bittersweet history of public space, from medieval markets to the modern freeway.
No matter that the Jackson piece is "legacy" in form and only partially Internet-accessible (preview here in Glazer and Lille, The Public Face of Architecture). Jackson's classic writing spins a most relevant story, an ambiguous tale about the raison d'être of today's urbanism: reclaiming the human and natural systems which underlie the city, as first principles of urban reemergence from within, rather than sprawl to afar.
According to Jackson, likely writing in the 1970s, the symbol of the modern city is a collection of streets as seen from above, a mere "cartographic abstraction" of implied richness, because the bird's-eye relationship between public byways and private space is how we now understand urban areas. In contrast, Jackson described the foundational and compact, vertical city of towers amid a landscape perceived by the medieval resident of long ago -- who did not need to understand public streets and spaces -- while living a straightforward human and animal-propelled life of short journeys to work, church, market, and neighbors.