Jane Jacobs: School marm hipster becomes urban design guru

Published On: Jul 09 2012 04:41:40 PM EDT   Updated On: Sep 29 2012 03:41:20 PM EDT
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -

We have to apologize to our readers here in Jacksonville that we have discussed the inadvertent monsters of city planning like Robert Moses before really mentioning Jane Jacobs, but so much of her work infuses the everyday language of good cities that most of you will already feel acquainted with her as you read this. In fact, so much of her work is now accepted wisdom that you have to keep in mind that her work was groundbreaking and against the tidal wave of New Deal Era central planning bureaucracies of the time.


Here is a picture of Jacobs.  She was what she looked like:  A sweet faced, incredibly intelligent, tough little lady.

For most of us the actual outlines of who Jane Jacobs is and what her legacy means are fairly vague. If you have heard of her, you know her as the opposite number to Robert Moses, which is to say that she’s The Good Guy opposite his mustache-twirling central planning baddie in the battle for the soul of New York City’s built environment. (For the curious, read Roberta Brandes Gratz’s Battle For Gotham, if you are interested in the story of the battle of wills between these two titans). As already mentioned, Jacobs’ ideal city looks a lot like what most of us would describe and includes the very same built-in, human-scale elements and efficiencies like street vibrancy and greenness.

Jacobs wasn’t much for mega-projects, which made itself felt most famously in her (successful) opposition to Robert Moses’ attempts to turn Fifth Avenue into a major arterial and open a highway that would’ve sped drivers through lower Manhattan, but also manifested in her resistance to better-conceived developments such as Lincoln Center.

Jacobs was, on the other hand, generally all for community-driven initiatives. While this enables us to divide recent development projects and schemes up into things Jacobs would or would not have liked — she would’ve loathed plan for Brooklyn; she presumably would’ve loved Springfield's privately conceived, funded and executed quasi-homesteady Community Gardens Project (which just recently had its ribbon-cutting ceremony) — it doesn’t really do us much good in terms of helping us to understand contemporary cities as Jacobs might have.

That understanding becomes doubly difficult when we consider just how much of what’s happening in New Urbanism's, carbon emission driven popularity is the result of incentives designed by one of Jacobs’ other bugaboos: the state.

Does it matter what Jane Jacobs would think about all this? Whether she’d recognize anything of the city she describes and celebrates and excoriates in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in the modern American City? In terms of your commute, or the price of your apartment, or your property taxes, the answer is probably no.

In terms of understanding the city in which we live, though, it might. Jacobs’ Good and Evil view of the struggle between Communities and Power may be dated in the sense that the conflict doesn’t take the shape that it once did — they don’t necessarily get to write the laws, but it’s not tough to argue that mega-developers currently wield nearly as much power than city government, and occasionally wield said power through the city government — but the conflict between big and small interests and big and small development are enduring, and endure still.

It’s telling that, all these years later, Jacobs’ ideas still have the power to elicit snarky, peevish editorials from real estate developers in the Wall Street Journal. And it’s telling, too, that the organic, community-driven urbanism that Jacobs so prized in 1961 is so remarkably close to the Sustainable City ideal nearly 50 years later.

All these years after her revolutionary book: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we are still having essentially the same life-and-death argument about the relative sustainability, livability and viability.

All of us owe her a huge debt, for pointing out the undiscovered truths of humans within cities and then by demonstrating that tireless advocacy and activism is the cure.

If you haven't already read her works, then by all means stop and pick up copies of her seminal, world changing writing.  She will open new perspectives on the world around you, even today, 50 years after she started writing.

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