Jane Jose, Places women make (Review)

Jane Jose, Places women make“Places”, Jane Jose writes in her book Places women make, “can lift our spirits and be inclusive, and add surprise, excitement, wonder or some beauty to day-to-day life in the city.” These sorts of places, which are essential to making our cities liveable, rarely just happen. They take planning, and who does this planning? Men. At least, it’s men, says Jose, who have been the “hero architects of most of Australia’s city buildings, leading the design, even if women were invisibly designing the detail behind the scenes.” So, in Places women make, she aims to right this imbalance, to bring to the fore the work women have done in making cities better. This is not, however, a feminist rant. She does not undermine the work done by men. She simply wants women to receive their share of recognition, not just because they deserve it but because it is important for other women – particularly young women – to know.

I had not heard of Jane Jose before reading this book, which proves her point rather because, in fact, she, a self-described urbanist, has been involved in urban planning for well over two decades. She has done this through many roles, including, at one point, Deputy Lord Mayor of Adelaide, her home town. Indeed, one of the fascinating aspects of the book is just how many ways people can contribute to urban planning and improvement. She tells of the obvious people – the architects and town planners – but there are others too, such as the civic leaders and politicians, the landscape designers and gardeners,  the heritage and environmental activists, and the philanthropists. Women – many of them – have performed all these roles, and she shares some of their stories. It’s inspiring reading.

The book is structured thematically, starting with her overall thesis about what women can offer to urban design. This is probably a good place to mention two – hmmm – mantras, I’ll call them, which pervade the book. One is straightforward, and that is, to (mis)use EF Schumacher’s phrase, “small is beautiful”. Although women have been, and are, involved in big projects, it is often in the “small” projects that they make their biggest impacts. Early on, she repeats a leading architect’s criticism of Sydney’s Lord Mayor of Sydney, Clover Moore. Jose writes that he

once criticised her to me for having paid too much attention to the small public places and parks in the city rather than driving major projects. He described the small projects she is promoting in the city as being “like tatting”. To my mind this shows a lack of understanding of how women see the small things adding up to a greater whole.

Jose goes on to discuss the projects and ideas Clover Moore has driven, arguing that Moore “understands that community places and activities are the glue in the community” and further, that beautiful, liveable cities “bear the fruit of a strong economy”. I’m not an economist, but there must be some truth to this argument I think. Anyhow, throughout the book, Jose describes many, many small community-focused projects initiated by women, from Wendy Whiteley’s magical Lavender Bay garden to Stephanie Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation, from Jane Lomax-Smith’s work on protecting Adelaide’s parklands to Tess Brady’s involvement in the creation of Australia’s first booktown at Clunes. Some of these, as you can tell, started small but ended much bigger, which is what happens to good ideas. From little things, big things grow (as Australia’s Paul Kelly sings).

The other mantra or thread is perhaps a little more problematic. It relates to what Jose calls a “feminine sensibility”. She defines this in terms of “creativity … intuition … lateral approach”, as having “a special relationship with community and village life”, and as taking the “long view”. She writes that “we know a female perspective is different from that of a man”. Intuitively – ha! – I understand what she is saying, but from a gender studies or feminist point of view this feels like dangerous ground. However, I’m going with her because her stories are powerful enough to argue her case. Women’s contributions have in general been overlooked or underplayed. Take for example Marion Mahony Griffin, wife of Walter Burley Griffin, credited as Canberra’s designer. It took decades for her part in what was clearly a partnership to be recognised.

What I enjoyed most about the book are the stories about projects, big and small, that women have initiated, some known to me, but many not. I enjoyed reading about Australia’s cities and what local women have fought for in them. This coming week I’ll be in Adelaide, the city where Jose cut her urban planning teeth. She writes about her involvement in the re-visioning of North Terrace and more specifically in activism to save Adelaide’s heritage architecture. I have visited Adelaide several times over the years, but on my visit last year, I was thrilled by how beautiful – and welcoming – it is, particularly North Terrace. We have Jane Jose, forensic pathologist Jane Lomax-Smith, architect Jackie Shannon Gillen, among others, to thank for that.

While her main focus is contemporary Australia, Jose also tells stories from the past. She describes how wives of Australia’s early administrators strongly affected the design of the cities they were in, women like Mrs Macquarie, wife of governor Lachlan Macquarie, and the energetic Lady Jane Franklin, wife of explorer and lieutenant governor of Van Dieman’s land, John Franklin. It is this Jane, in fact, who graces the book’s cover. (I have written about her before on this blog). These women are just two examples of women who, married to influential men, used their influence to affect city planning and design.

In addition to casting her net historically, Jose also crosses the seas. She ends her book with a special tribute to the influential American urbanist Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), who inspired her belief that cities can be villages or communities. But she also refers to other international women, such as American landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, Chilean landscape architect Teresa Moller, and London-based Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid.

What more can I say? Places women make is a fascinating book written by a woman passionate and clearly knowledgeable about her subject. If I have any complaints they are minor, and yet I do need to say them. One is that while she provides a wonderful list, at the end, of the women whose stories she tells, there is no index. I’d love an index. The other is that there are no foot-notes or end-notes documenting her sources, just a brief reading list. These don’t affect the book’s worth as a popular introduction to her subject, but they’d be much appreciated by those of us interested in a little more!

And now, since you can’t really “spoil” a book like this, I’ll end with Jose’s conclusion because it says it all:

Cities matter. They are alive and they change, they are the places we live our lives and make our memories. It takes commitment, imagination and passion to make even the smallest idea for change blossom from an idea into a park, a playground, a library or a shaded street. With the influence of women, cities can be better places. Tomorrow’s children need the places women make.

Lisa at ANZLitLovers also enjoyed the book.

awwchallenge2016Jane Jose
Places women make: Unearthing the contribution of women to our cities
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2016
ISBN: 9781743053942

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)