Journalism and the Urban Dialogue

By Karen Johnson

“I went to Architectural Forum and they said well, you’re now our school and hospital expert. That was the first time I got suspicious of experts. I knew nothing, not even how to read plans. …Anybody who would want to be an expert, I have some advice for you: Apply at a magazine.”
-Jane Jacobs to architecture critic Paul Goldberger

The first thing every city wonk should know about Jane Jacobs is that the patron saint of urban planning got her start as a journalist. She launched her career during print media’s heyday as a newspaper reporter and freelancer, working her way to editor at Architectural Forum and eventually authoring The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961.

In the half-century since Death and Life’s publication, monitors and touchscreens have come to dominate (some might say nearly replace) the media space once held by newspapers and books, bringing with them a new generation of writers who are sounding off on the built environment using an increasingly digital publishing arsenal.

So why should the design community care about what’s happening in media? Simple. If journalists are embracing new technologies, professionals like urban planners and architects can expect to be taken along for the ride. Jane Jacobs used essays, articles and books to remove city planning from its ivory tower. Today, it’s more likely that a blog post or Facebook news feed is informing the average person of what’s right and wrong with cities.

Last fall I decided to add my own two cents to the urban dialogue. Along with Hector Fernando Burga, a PhD student at UC Berkeley’s Department of City and Regional Planning, we co-launched TXT-Urbia, a collaborative online publication with a simple goal: Dissect and analyze books about cities within a “modern day context.” We teamed up with groups from Seattle, the Bay Area, Montreal, Fayetteville and Miami and brainstormed a list of books for our experiment. Death and Life quickly emerged as our top pick.

Over a period of three months, we attempted to breathe new life into Jacobs’s seminal work. We wrote about the importance of keeping “eyes on the street” in Alameda, California and considered the utter lack of Jacobs’s “ballet of sidewalks” in Seattle’s SoDo neighborhood. In Montreal, we touched on the growing influence of the culinary scene in the city’s Mile End.

As a contributor, I was intrigued by the influence technology had on our ability to communicate and grow our ideas. On a basic level, we were reading a book and writing about it. But we also built our own website and social media platform. Skype chats helped us keep the discussion rolling, and Google docs allowed us to collaborate.

Thanks to free and user-friendly technologies like Word Press, Twitter, Facebook and Google video chat, TXT-Urbia brought together a vibrant community that produced dozens of blog posts, a social media following and even a content-sharing partnership with MIT’s CoLab blog. By using the internet to forge our corner of the discussion, we gained legitimacy on some level. Each contributor brought their own perspective to the table to establish a conversation.

New media is shaping the urban dialogue. Here in Seattle, a handful of community organizers and thinkers are sharing ideas online. At Capitol Hill residents are using social media to connect to their neighborhood. Knute Berger at Crosscut and the contributors of Publicola are chiming in with news and local commentary on the built environment. City Tank, a new project founded by Dan Bertolet of Huge Ass City, offers policy analysis and essays. Seattle Bike Blog and Seattle Transit Blog are bringing their own takes on neighborhood- and city-scale planning projects.

But just as the Internet has made it easier than ever to participate in the urban dialogue, the fleeting nature of the medium makes me wonder if a blog post or website will ever have the influence that Death and Life has had. The optimist in me wants to believe that the next Jane Jacobs is out there blogging and developing a game-changing perspective on how we live—the same way Jacobs developed her voice and expertise as a journalist and writer half a century ago. TXT-Urbia’s blog is on hiatus (for now) but the group’s legacy lives on. Several of our contributors have enrolled in MUP and MCP programs, and there’s talk of diving into a new book this winter. Spending so much time in Jane Jacobs’s head has inspired me to go beyond writing and get my hands dirty volunteering in local parks and at building sites around the city. Architecture or urban planning school might be in my future, but in the meantime, I’ll continue writing about Seattle and exploring it with Jacobs as my guide.

Karen Johnson is a Seattle-based writer and editor. Follow her work at