UN-Habitat’s Joan Clos and architect PK Das honored with Jane Jacobs Medal

UN-Habitat Executive Director Joan Clos was awarded the Jane Jacobs Medal along with Indian architect PK Das. (Pablo Saa)

QUITO, Ecuador — Former Barcelona Mayor Joan Clos and Indian architect PK Das were honored yesterday at the Quito Contemporary Art Centre with the Jane Jacobs Medal, the first time the award has been issued internationally.

Clos was recognized for his leadership as executive director of UN-Habitat and secretary-general of the Habitat III conference. Das was lauded for his activist approach to architecture in Mumbai’s slums.

Sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Municipal Art Society of New York, the award is named after the author and activist Jane Jacobs. She rose to prominence in the 1960s while protesting urban renewal schemes and defending historic landmarks in Manhattan. She wrote her landmark book celebrating the “sidewalk ballet” of everyday urban life, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, with the support of a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. (The Rockefeller Foundation supports Citiscope.)

The award is traditionally given to community leaders in New York City. But it was given internationally for the first time this year on the occasion of Habitat III and the 100th anniversary of Jacobs’ birth. It was noted that Jacobs left New York to live in Toronto.

“Though her work in New York certainly was revolutionary, 
Jane spent less than half her life in the city where she began her career,” said Rockefeller Foundation President Judith Rodin. “And when she left the United States in 1968, Jane showed us that no matter where she was,
 she would continue her campaign to keep all cities diverse, livable, and vibrant.”

Clos was honored for a career that started in medicine and public health and later took him to the city council and mayorship in Barcelona. He later served as a Spanish minister and ambassador before taking the post as the U. N.’s top official on urbanization. Clos was honored for his role in advancing the cause of cities, notably through the New Urban Agenda, the U. N.’s 20-year strategy on urbanization set to be adopted here on Thursday.

“Like Jane Jacobs — who was at different points a journalist, civic organizer, lecturer, and author — Dr. Clos has held a wide variety of positions over the years,” Rodin said. “But if there’s a unifying theme to his work, it’s an unwavering commitment to revitalizing cities and serving the public.”

[Read: A Clos-up view on urbanization]

Upon accepting the award, Clos recounted a brief encounter he had with Jacobs in Barcelona. Clos has cited Jacobs as a big influence in his own work.  “I would like to think Jane Jacobs would be a big supporter of the New Urban Agenda if she were alive today,” he said.

Although this was the first Jane Jacobs Medal to be awarded internationally, Clos lauded New York, which has become something of an adopted home city during his time at the U. N. Recounting the city’s parks, streets and mixed-use hustle and bustle, he said, “It’s a marvel of urbanization.”

Clos donated his $100,000 prize to the Habitat III Trust Fund to fund a one-year follow-up on the implementation of the New Urban Agenda in informal settlements around the world.

The other Jane Jacobs honoree, PK Das, has spent the last 40 years on the frontlines of legal battles, street protests and ideological debates about urbanism and public space in India’s largest city. “Like Jane, PK Das has led protests of the most vulnerable people in his own city — 
speaking out against forced eviction, and risking personal danger to do so,” Rodin said. “He’s blocked the demolition of Mumbai slum-dwellers’ homes — and then, he’s built them better ones.”

Das said he was “deeply humbled” to receive the award, but offered an indictment of the contemporary state of urban affairs. “I am constantly disturbed by the fact that the growth of urbanization is increasingly dividing our cities into disparate fragments both in social and spatial terms,” he said. “Our cities are producing and reproducing backyards of exclusion, discrimination, neglect, and abuse.”

As a public space advocate, his observations are that the situation is getting worse, not better. “Sadly, while cities are expanding, public space is shrinking,” he said. “In many ways this is undermining the very idea of cities.” He will use his award to create a trust fund to promote participatory planning in Mumbai.

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