The Legacy of Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

Jane Jacobs, a visionary advocate of human-scale cities, died last week in Toronto at age 89. Her central thesis, spelled out most famously in her seminal 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was that thriving metropolises derive their energy — their life — not from business, but from a diversity of people in a lively, organic mixture of residences, businesses, and public spaces, especially the street.

News of Jacobs’ death sparked a wave of online discussion. Most lauded her brilliance, like Tom Philpott at the Gristmill, who writes: ‘Everyone who loves the chaos of a well-functioning city street — and understands the vast environmental benefits of cities — should bow east in the direction of her beloved Greenwich Village, and north toward her adopted home of Toronto.’

In Jacobs’ view, livable cities are more like ecosystems than machines. They must be carefully tended and allowed to grow on their own, not engineered from above. Challenging the urban planning orthodoxy of her day, which called for razing old buildings and segregating urban areas into zones for distinct uses, she wrote in The Death and Life of Great American Cities: ‘Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order.’ She sparked a national movement when she stared down New York City planning czar Robert Moses in 1968 and stopped a planned freeway from bisecting her Greenwich Village neighborhood, which had been the inspiration for so many of her observations.

Even in death, Jacobs is a lightning rod for debate. Detractors wasted no time in pronouncing her ideas dead. In a Sunday op-ed piece titled ‘ Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York,’ New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff defended the Modernist megaliths Jacobs so despised, recalling the World Trade Center as a ‘welcome contrast in scale … amid the chaos’ of Manhattan. ‘Similarly,’ he continues, ‘the shimmering glass towers that frame lower Park Avenue are awe-inspiring precisely because they offer a sharp contrast to the quiet tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side.’

‘Pure bullshit,’ retorts Jacobs fan and biting suburbia critic James Howard Kunstler (not known for pulling punches) on his blog. ‘Jacobs knew better than that,’ Kunstler continues. ‘[A]s America sleepwalks into the Long Emergency of energy scarcity, we are going to learn the hard way that a city composed of ever more shimmering towers and megastructures has a tragic destiny.’

Writing for, Roger Scruton doesn’t rally to Ouroussoff’s defense of pro-suburban, car-centered planning. But in his fond recollection of Jacobs’ impact he does point out that her astute critique of planning doesn’t tell us how to fix the sprawling mess we’re in. ‘If the problem is planning,’ he asks, ‘how can we plan to avoid it? And is there no distinction between a good plan and a bad plan?’ Scruton calls for a bottom-up form of planning that focuses on livability: ‘It is not planning that has destroyed the American city,’ he writes, ‘but the wrong kind of planning directed towards the wrong kind of things.’

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