Reading Jane Jacobs Today

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

In the opening line of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs says that her book is an “attack on the current urban planning and rebuilding” (p. 3). She wrote this in the 1960s, when large-scale urban redevelopment projects were transforming the shape of American cities. However, Death and Life is not just a battle cry from the 1960s, it is a book of novel ideas and  insights that are still relevant to the urban experience. At the height of centralized urban planning practices in New York led by Robert Moses, Jacobs was the flag bearer of U.S. urbanists who fought against his destructive projects (e.g. Cross Bronx Expressway) in city councils, editorials and on the streets. In the end, Moses managed to finish most of his projects and fundamentally transform New York City. Despite this, Jacobs carried on her struggles by writing this book, one that half a century later still continues to influence how the public and the planners perceive and produce city spaces.

Jacobs’ main purpose is to challenge the mainstream planning principles of her time: superblocks, car-oriented mobility solutions, separation of land uses, lack of attention to density and overlooking racial issues. As an alternative approach, she proposes a number of key solutions to make cities work better: (a) a district should be mixed and serve several primary functions; (b) blocks must be short and walkable in order to maintain a dynamic street life; (c) urban buildings should be diverse in terms of age, physical condition, functions and rentals; and finally, (d) neighbourhoods should be crowded and dense to create a sense of community and safety.

Jacobs puts a great emphasis on street life. Sidewalk interactions, she argues, are essential to enhance racial and class integration. She even wants streets to serve as playgrounds. Children should be able to “fool around” on streets, instead of playing “recognized games” in the parks. (p. 85) She is particularly against the Corbusian notions of open spaces and big parks. Jacobs, instead, proposes small neighbourhood parks and playgrounds, spaces that could be easily accessed and constantly used.

Death and Life, in particular, attacks urban planners and their established principles. That was why, in response, they reacted by counterattacks and mockery: Lewis Mumford (1962), in his New Yorker review, called her book “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies,” while a reviewer for the Journal of the American Institute of Planners accused her of naïveté and contemptuously added: “The enchanted ballerina of Hudson Street, with a chip on her shoulder, would throw the baby out with the bathwater” (Hoppenfeld, 1962, p. 136). These harsh reactions were partly because of Jacobs’ position as an outsider: she had no formal training in planning and she had never finished college.

Today, Jacobs’ ideas about walkability, safety, mixed-use development and density are being practiced in many cities, including her hometown of New York, where its outgoing mayor has been pushing for bike lines, neighbourhood revitalization and pedestrian-only areas in downtown. With the increasing influence of new technology on how we behave, consume and work, it is not only the planners who transform cities but an array of other agents who are shaping the urban experience: software developers, health agencies, small business, large corporations, local authorities, security institutions and, most importantly, ordinary citizens. This is a significantly more collective and participatory form of planning which Jacobs advocated.

The car is no longer a universal object of desire. In response to environmental and health concerns, an increasing number of cities in the world are redefining their transportation strategies to accommodate cyclists. Apart from bicycle-sharing projects in North American cities, there are cities like Copenhagen where 55% of urban trips are done on bicycles (Tagliabue, 2011). The city is no longer “a wonderful mechanical toy” built for cars (Jacobs, 1993, p. 23). The city today, thanks to Jacobs and other urban advocates like her, are more human-friendly, healthier and more inclusive.

Death and Life is rich for its insightful ideas about the social and economic dynamics of city neighbourhoods. It suffers, however, from the lack of a rigorous methodology and theoretical basis: it seems that Jacobs has based the entire book on personal observations and anecdotal evidence. Her most important contribution, in my opinion, is participatory urbanism, a kind of approach in planning process that values the people’s interest and engagement. This is her lasting legacy in city planning. Therefore, one could argue that she lost the battle against Moses, but won the war.

References:

Hoppenfeld, M. (1962). The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs [Review]. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 28 (2), 136–137.

Jacobs, J. (1993). The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House

Mumford, L. (1962, December 1). “Mother Jacobs’ home remedies.” The New Yorker. Accessed October 18, 2013: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/1962/12/01/1962_12_01_148_TNY_CARDS_000269697

Tagliabue, J. (2011, Sep. 13). “In City of Cyclists, Pedestrians Feel the Squeeze”. The New York Times. Accessed October 22, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/14/world/europe/in-copenhagen-pedestrians-feel-squeezed-out-by-cyclists.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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