Jane Jacobs: Sticking Up For Cities

Her activism permanently altered urban planning

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Jane Jacobs had no formal training in city planning or architecture, or even a college degree. But when this daughter of a doctor and a schoolteacher moved from Scranton, Pa., to New York City in 1938, a job at Architectural Forum and marriage to an architect soon blossomed into a lifelong passion for understanding how cities are built and lived in. From her home in Manhattan's bustling Greenwich Village, the opinionated young woman watched with growing disgust as the urban renewal movement that had swept the U.S. after World War II cleared whole neighborhoods in New York and other cities. In their place rose bland Modernist office towers that spawned a kind of urban apartheid, with downtowns set aside for office workers who commuted in from the swelling suburbs, leaving city cores increasingly dark and deserted at night.

The experience prompted Jacobs to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Its publication in 1961 triggered a profound shift in the way we look at cities. Her premise: Cities are engines of growth whose vitality stems from the variety of activities humans engage in there. They should be lively, mixed-use places where people live, work, shop, raise families, and join their creative energies in myriad ways. Cities should be allowed to grow organically; carving them up into single-use sections, as the Modernists recommended, is like thrusting a dagger into their hearts.

Although the so-called New Urbanism movement Jacobs helped to spark took years to be widely accepted, her views are now standard thinking among architects and city planners. Her amateur status didn't stop her from attacking the celebrated powers, from Le Corbusier, who wanted to raze the historic Marais in central Paris (but never succeeded), to New York master planner Robert Moses, who built many city highways in the face of fierce neighborhood opposition. In the 1960s, Jacobs led activists who stymied Moses' plans to put an expressway smack through her beloved Greenwich Village.

Nowadays, it's routine for planners to meet with local residents. More broadly, many officials realize that urban life can't always be dictated from the top down. The disorganized nature of cities is a natural ingredient of their health, allowing their energy to flourish. In the 1990s, Jacobs' ideas about mixing residential and business usage helped fuel the renewed interest in urban cores that has been revitalizing inner-city areas such as Harlem.

At 88, Jacobs continues to rail against what she sees as sterile planning, particularly in U.S. suburbs. "Never before have normal human beings been consigned to such poverty of imagination and disrespect for function," she lamented in a talk at the City College of New York this past May. The suburbs were essentially created, she said, by "selling out the country for cheap parking." These iconoclastic views may have been sharpened over the years by her residency in Toronto, where she and her husband moved in 1968 to protect their two sons from the draft during the Vietnam War. The move was to be temporary, but she never left and still uses her perch in the north to cast a critical eye homeward.

By Aaron Bernstein

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