Jane Jacobs was a writer and activist primarily on urban planning, the economics of cities, and decay. She moved to New York from Pennsylvania during the Great Depression, and lived there for more than thirty years before moving to Toronto, Canada. She wanted to be known as an economic theorist on cities, but she is best known for two intertwined pieces of activism and writing; she was the major organiser of a campaign to stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway through New York’s downtown in the 1960s, and campaigned against many other urban improvements in the area, and she wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a polemic disagreeing with most of the major urban theorists of the time (my review is here).
Jacobs was born in Pennsylvania in 1916 and after finishing school she moved to New York, where she worked as a writer and stenographer, both freelance and for trade journals, often writing stories about various districts of New York and what made them tick. She married in 1944, and had three children. Although she didn’t go to university in a formal sense, she spent two years studying an eclectic mix of courses at Columbia University. She lived in Greenwich Village in New York, and parlayed that experience, plus her wide experience of the districts of New York from her writing career into a wide ranging book about urban planning – the Death and Life of Great American Cities.
This was not only a withering critique of current planning techniques, but proposed radically different ideas for how cities should be rebuilt. She was in favour of diversity, dynamism and mixture – arguing that neighbourhoods worked best when they were a mix of rich and poor, residents and businesses, cultural and economic. Her major ideas were:
Her major theses were that for a city to work:
- A street or district must serve several primary functions.
- Blocks must be short.
- Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals.
- Population must be dense
Urban planning in cities has never been the same.
Reading the book now, fifty years later, many of her ideas seem obvious, especially if you have lived in a city planned by someone who has read her work. But at the time they were incredibly radical, and were harshly criticized, particularly by the university educated men who were responsible for the urban planning of New York at the time. The idea that diversity improves a city and makes it safer was radical then, and still radical now, there are always residents trying to move other users of the city out of their neighbourhoods, particularly as they gentrify.
She wrote several other books about the economy of cities, but her best known book, because it changed the paradigm, was her first. She put all her principles into action by campaigning against many proposed improvements to her own and other parts of New York – in a documentary about New York on PBS, one episode of 14 was devoted to her battles with Robert Moses with Jacobs campaigning for neighborhoods to stay as they were and not to be replaced by expressways and Le Corboisier style apartment blocks.
She moved on to Toronto in the late 70s, when she was worried that her sons would be drafted, and immediately became a major campaigner in city planning there. But her influence in New York, and many other cities lived on, as the power of community became something recognised as a force for change in city planning.
It is rare for a thinker in any field to change it singlehandedly as much as she did.