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…