Wednesday, May 04, 2016


Jane Jacobs’ 100th Birthday

This week marked Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday.  She wrote one of the maybe half-dozen books I’ve read that I can honestly say changed my life.  

When she died in 2006, I wrote this tribute to her.  In retrospect, I wasn’t aware of how conscious her followers were of her influence, and I wish I had included references to her later work.  Still, as a personal recollection of the impact of a masterpiece, I think it holds up pretty well.  

Happy birthday, Jane Jacobs.


Jane Jacobs died this week. Though she wrote a short shelf of books, she’ll be remembered mostly for her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

If you’ve never read Death and Life, grab a copy. Seriously.

I first read it in 1994, and can still remember the ‘Eureka!’ moments. It’s one of those books that’s so perfectly crafted on every level, and so intuitively right, that it feels discovered, rather than written. After reading it, you feel like you’ve always known it, but just never put it together.

Jacobs used the quotidian experience of urban motherhood as a framing device (and a source of metaphors) for an incredibly sophisticated, yet simple, argument about cities. In contrast to the great urban planners and theorists of her time (Robert Moses, Lewis Mumford), she argued that the essence of a city is pedestrian, in both senses of the word. Cities live and die according to the pedestrian activity on the streets. When there are ‘eyes on the street,’ the street is safe. Danger comes not from crowds, but from isolation.

The great sin of mid-century urban planning, she argued, was zoning. Cities work best when they’re integrated on the ground. That means high-density, mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly grids, on which people of different incomes and ages and races literally bump into each other. (She took for granted that, in the absence of zoning regulations, mixed uses will develop.) The constant street-level exposure to difference serves as a natural teacher (preventing provincialism), and allows a rare mix of cosmopolitanism and intimacy. Cities in which the streets are empty at night force people into their homes, abandoning the public square to the predatory, the desperate, and the deranged. The segregation-by-use characteristic of classic suburbia was dysfunctional; the gradual creep of jobs into suburbia was predictable. Mixed use is natural, because people have mixed needs.

Her writing fit her theory. The theory seems to emerge inductively, as if discovered in the course of shepherding her kids through life in New York City. Maybe it did.

She cast some long shadows. Richard Sennett’s work owes hers a debt; I’d argue that Richard Florida’s does, too, whether he knows it or not. The ‘New Urbanism’ is a direct outgrowth of her insights. A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell pointed out that many of the trends in modern office architecture can be traced directly to her influence. Hell, The Wife and I bought the house we did was because the town it’s in has sidewalks, a grid layout, and a walkable downtown. It’s in a town Jane Jacobs would have approved.

I made a major life decision differently for having read her. And she was right.

A tip ‘o’ the cap…

I read Death and Life after the post in 2006. It was a great recommendation, and it influenced my wife and me when we purchased our house too. I second the recommendation.

"Has a street grid" is one of the major qualifications of where I live. I still don't understand why, after 55 years, ever been building so much of the opposite.
There has been some reconsideration of Jane Jacobs' ideas recently. Here's one article:

The sorts of places she loved tend not to stay the way they are. Places with good fundamentals -- such as a good location near appealing jobs -- get gentrified. So she was a bit of a hipster-type; she wanted to discover a nice place before everyone else came along, made it popular, and ruined it.
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I'm the old fart around here...I read TDALOGAC in 1967. It change my mind about a lot of things and in some ways changed my life. By the time I got to grad school (1969), ideas from that book were (slowly) infiltrating urban economics. By the time I went to work for the City of Indianapolis (1976-89) as an economic development planner, her ideas were everywhere, even among people who had never heard of her or her book. When I returned to academia and taught urban economics occasionally, I always assigned that book and used it to explain how to think about a lot of the ideas we were using. If you haven't read it and care about cities, it's still available (for about $10 new on Amazon).

Her later books--The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations--are also still available, still useful, but somewhat less focused that that first thunderbolt of a book. One of the great thinkers about urban issues in the last half of the 20th century. (For a contrast, and as an example of the sort of thinking she was arguing against, read some Lewis Mumford, such as The Culture of Cities.)
You can possibly do without zoning laws if you live in NYC because no one is going to start raising hogs next door to your house, and it would cost too much to put a foundary there. But what about where you live? Would the schools be as good in your area if someone could run a flea market or sell used cars next door to your house? Probably not.

I agreed 100% with her sentiment against urban renewal. It destroyed some great neighborhoods in my hometown and the displaced people ended up in planned (but very poorly planned) developments that were practically designed to become slums. And this was in a small city, not a debacle like Cabrini Green in Chicago. But I see modern planners use the same tools (like eminent domain) to displace people in the name of revitalization instead of renewal. Don't get me wrong, the resulting hipster neighborhood is much more appealing to me than a freeway or brutalist office buildings, but the effect on former residents is probably the same.
Great tribute to the way she changed our thinking about cities.
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I'm pleased there is an article on Jane Jacob!
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Essential reading for anyone who cares about cities.
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Hopefully, we can keep some identity.
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Confessions of a legend. I am very pleased to know about her.
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