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Jane Jacobs: Famous Urban Visionary



Jane Jacobs became famous in 1961 when her seminal book on urban studies, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was published.  Born a doctor's daughter in 1916 and raised in hybrid boom-then-bust Scranton, PA, she was a keen observer of details, and wondered why, for example, all the wheel-wells of the Scranton rail-yard locomotives were being covered up.

She later would find herself ruminating over urban renewal projects and their base motivation to cover up messy urban environments.  During the years her children were growing up, Jacobs and her architect husband, Robert, lived in New York City's Greenwich Village, a mixed-use neighborhood of apartments and houses over ground-floor, mom-and-pop stores.

It became one of numerous neighborhoods in New York slated for "urban renewal", because its' non-traditional building uses and older construction went against the wishes of powerful city planners like Robert Moses who pushed huge freeway projects and the separation of uses.

Editor Becomes a Visionary

Jane Jacobs worked as a editor of an architectural magazine and only forayed into urban policy when her bosses asked her to begin covering the city planning section of the magazine. Once there, she quickly established a platform that resonated with many people who agreed with her reasoning that governmental policy was hastening the decline of urban communities.  She wrote many articles for magazines and won readership because she wrote about "basic but elusive ideas" with a "breathtaking clarity of expression".

Her tipping point article, Downtown is For People, in Fortune magazine in 1958, led to her being offered a grant by the Rockefeller Foundation to expand the ideas of the article into a book.  When published three years later, the Death and Life of Great American Cities became an immediate hit with its basic premise that cities are physical places and understood when observed, not in metaphysical terms.

In other words, planning can't be dictated from above, proof of which had been the destructive effects of the razing of large sections of East Harlem and the loss of over 1,000 stores, businesses, and community centers, all in the name of urban renewal.

Mother and Urban Homesteader

Jacobs, mother, urban homesteader, writer, and activist, rose in fame during the heady times of "urban renewal", when American city centers were being decimated by "slum clearance", roughly translating to today's "gentrification", and massive freeway building projects.  In Death and Life, she famously wrote about "eyes on the street", the concept of safety in numbers as well as socialization (in contrast to suburban isolationism).  Furthermore, she argued that innovation is born in the cities, through socialization, where creative and intellectual talent is incubated and developed.

Jacobs won fights with developers of nefarious projects by making public what they were going to do, thereby backing them into corners and forcing them to do the right thing.  In this way, projects like the "unslumming" of the West Village were stopped cold by politicians reticent about backing detested projects for fear of losing future elections.

Toronto Activism

After years of fights with bureaucratic behemoth New York City, and with the imminent possibility of her sons being drafted into service in the Vietnam war, a war against which she had protested, she and her family moved to Canada. 

Though she longed to stop fighting, she ended up becoming a fixture in Toronto's citizens' efforts to stop a large-scale freeway system from chopping up central Toronto.  If the expressway had been built, it would have destroyed 900 homes and some of the city's unique ravines. 

She also worked with the principle architect of one of Toronto's early mixed-use developments, the St. Lawrence Neighborhood, convincing him to consider the different uses of the street and the relationship between the street and the buildings.  She became Toronto's darling and special, adopted citizen, yet her influence was also felt in other places, like Portland, Oregon, where a young, newly elected mayor and Jacobs devotee halted a proposed freeway project in 1974 and, instead, built a modern mass transit system. 

Her Urban Trilogy and Legacy

Throughout her career, Jacobs was frustrated by urban development continuing to fit the old paradigm.  She felt her crusading was stymied by a kind of Newton's Law in politics – where reform only arrives when motion is interrupted by some force. 

Nevertheless, she is credited by numerous urban luminaries as having touched a nerve with planners and the public;  by the 1970's, new standards in housing had begun to take effect, with low-rise, but still dense, mixed-use communities being built instead of the single-use,  isolating towers that had taken over New York's East Harlem and other, marginalized urban areas across America. 

She authored numerous books, but her Death and Life, The Economy of Cities, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations, constitute what Harvard professor Howard Husock called a great trilogy of urban economics.  Jacobs contended that subjects like economics, sociology, and urban planning are not distinct bodies as much as they are interrelated.  She took issue with universities for misleading people into thinking that subjects are separate fields of knowledge, saying that a complex order is the result of the many interweaving components. 

Stated another way, every subject links up and becomes part of a seamless web.  In this light, it is fair to say that Jane Jacobs was not only an urban visionary but also one of the most influential citizens of the 20th century and beyond.  Without her leadership, it is rather certain that one of America's most cherished urban neighborhoods, Greenwich Village, would have been permanently ruined by urban renewal. 

Even worse, had the Lower Manhattan Expressway been built, New York City would have suffered what so many inner cities across America did when freeways cut through and divided neighborhoods. 

So Jacobs, single-handedly, had a positive influence on the economics, and sociology, not just of central New York City, but also of cities across the U.S.A.  Her books are as relevant today as they ever were, and are required reading in many college classes.

Based on the biography entitled Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary by Alexi , 321 pages, 2006