I have written three significant works of fiction. Jimmy Meets Jane Jacobs: The Time Travelling Planner is my shortest work, and also my most recent. This post is my endeavour to explain some of my reasoning for composing the story in the manner in which I did, and to outline what I think it offers the urban planning profession.
All good fiction is intended to do more than just entertain. Plus, if this book ends up in a book club, you will have some insight into my thinking.
As I am an urban planner, I always thought that my first piece of fiction would focus on planning, but other ideas caught my imagination before I could pen my thoughts on planning. I pictured a grand supersized novel composed in the absurd fashion of Catch-22, with civic bureaucrats running amok. There is so much red tape in urban planning (and development compliance) that I could’ve written a satirical magnum opus that mocks the system, as Heller did to the military.
In the end, Jimmy Meets Jane Jacobs is short. At 15,000 words, it falls into the category of a novella. A novella is an interesting medium, as it allows for character development and a variety of scenes in a way that a short story does not, but it can be much more fast-paced than a novel.
As I had a lot of fun with Murder By Pizza, which was a comedy, I wanted to revisit that genre, especially after writing The Flames of a Potemkin Kingdom, which was a dystopia. I decided that Jimmy Meets Jane Jacobs would be overtly funny (and silly), and not just deadpan, as I first envisioned. Therefore, I introduced time travel into the equation.
Perhaps one day I will still write a book about mundane life in a planning office in the present day: the slow grind of dusting off old plans and ‘reimagining’ them, embossing new buzz phrases such as ‘live, work, and plan’ to them; boring old bosses, institutional inertia: two steps forward, two steps back. Pivot.
In Jimmy, I wanted to explore how the motivation of a young man can change when he discovers a purpose and a drive. The presence of Jill gave him a spark, but when he discovered a great cause (with Jane), he really smartened up. But if Jimmy had continued to drift, he would’ve been lost to the bureaucratic jungle. He would’ve become one of those municipal employees who couldn’t care less about the hardship of residents. At its heart, this is a story of individual salvation.
I explored how some homeless people (albeit via hyperbole) may become down on their luck by the faceless decisions made by a city council. And, through Jimmy, I show how much better life can be when one finds their true calling.
I also wanted to explore how urban planning decisions made today can have a ripple effect on the built environment of the future. That is why it is important for us to plan well now. Significant pieces of infrastructure are here to stay. If they decay, they will likely be replaced in place. The LRT route in Edmonton will be here forever, so when petty lobbying made the route change, Edmontonians in the year 3000 will be taking the same curves on the train as we do now. I am thinking of the whole interfacing of the LRT near Kingsway Mall. Why don’t we do the best we can now?
Urban planning practice has changed over time, and Jane Jacobs is credited for bringing public participation into a more central focus, especially in rebuff to Robert Moses’s heavy-handed decisions in New York.
There was a special era in Toronto when Jane mobilized opposition to highway infrastructure projects and the grassroots really began to spout. I wanted to explore the planning history of Toronto as homage to the city where I came of age.
I believe that many people do not understand Jane Jacobs, the real person. As I had never met her, I kept her as a secondary character in this story, but I did my best to stay true to her philosophy, as that is well documented. I am of the opinion that she is currently being misrepresented. I feel that many people believe that she is a personification of all current progressive values, but she was not. It is an anachronism to think so. And so I think that ‘Jane Walks’ and many urban planning schools get the message wrong. Her name has been meshed into a generic folkloric element, and that is not fair.
Jane Jacobs thought that we should respect existing communities and be less regulatory, and I agree. Many current planners want to regulate the hell out of your life in order to meet her vision… These current planners do not trust your intuition, whereas Jane advocated listening to your average Joe.
She talked about organic neighbourhoods, not centrally planned ones.
In my work of fiction, I hope I stayed true to her. RIP Jane Jacobs.
Click here to access the book.
If you liked this, please also consider reading one of my other novels. I write on a variety of topics. The broad themes of my fiction include individualism versus collective thought, and the importance of culture and identity in society. I sometimes use humour as a tool. I sometimes use pity. Sit back, click, and enjoy.