Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Reader's Diary #170- Jane Jacobs: Dark Age Ahead (up to "Unwinding vicious Spirals")

Books can work me up quite easily. After reading No Logo I loathed Nike. After reading Fast Food Nation I put the kibosh on MacDonalds (for a while anyway). Heck, even after My Life as a 10 Year Old Boy I could be found ranting about the bitchiness of Elizabeth Taylor.

But Dark Age Ahead hasn't roused any strong emotions yet. Unless slight annoyance counts.

"Science Abandoned" is probably the worst chapter in the book thus far. Maybe you have to be living in a major city to get this one because Jacobs seems to have taken most of her angst out on traffic engineers. Really? A book about the decay of western culture and she points her finger at traffic engineers? I can buy that perhaps they generally do a lousy job. Heck, I can even believe that maybe it really is a pseudo-science, as she said. But I don't know, traffic engineers don't make for compelling reading. And as a catalyst for social change, they're not likely to gain many recruits- for or against.

Furthermore, Jacobs' rant against this particular profession seemed a little hypocritical to me. In her argument, she accused them of not using science. In her examples, she implied that they do little more than guess work and next to no experimentation. Fine. That could be a solid point. But what did Jacobs back up her defence with? Research? Statistics? Expert opinion? No. Instead, she seemed to think that anecdotes would suffice, rambling on and on about her experiences in New York and Toronto.

I get that Jacobs was intelligent, despite earning a university degree. I also get that many of those with university degrees are not intelligent. This was at the crux of her "Credentialing Versus Educating" chapter. However, the "Science Abandoned" chapter was handled poorly. If she wanted the reader to take her word over the university trained traffic engineers, then she pretty well make sure to have some solid arguments to back it up. Most books such as these require some leap of faith, some trust. Who has the time to double check all of the sources, all the research and all of the methodology used? Not me. But if I am going to put my trust in something, I'd like a little more substance than an anecdote.

I'm not saying I believe Jacobs to be wrong with her assessment of traffic engineers. I am, however, saying I don't believe she's necessarily correct. I feel as in the dark on the subject now, as I did before I opened the book. The difference is, I hadn't given it a whole lot of thought before. I guess that's something.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

That's disappointing. Jane Jacobs was always touted as such a visionary when it came to city design. But if one has to second-guess the information she gives, well, that's just not a good thing.

John Mutford said...

Barbara, you might enjoy the book a little more than me, since you live in a large city such as Calgary. She doesn't exactly connect it to those of us that don't. And the chapter to which I was referring to here is definitely the worst, the rest aren't bad. She does back up more of her opinions in other chapters.