Utne Reader Visionary: Jane Jacobs

We need to remember that things can get better


| March-April 1996



In 1961, at the urban renewing, plastic-facade nadir of American urbanism, an unassuming New York architecture writer and social prophet who had the temerity to love her quirky old Greenwich Village neighborhood wrote a book called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jane Jacobs defended what nearly everyone else called slums and eyesores: the close-knit urban neighborhoods that were under assault by superhighways and high-rise housing projects. Today we want the neighborhoods back, and we treasure them where they exist. Instead of saying I told you so, Jacobs, 80, has continued, from her home in Toronto, to make ingenious and sensible inquiries (Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1989; Systems of Survival, 1992) into what makes for good city life, how cities shape the world, and what sort of ethics can promote urban prosperity.

I remember talking to teachers in Texas in the 1950s. They were just desperate over the apathy of their students, their lack of concern for the world. These teachers couldn’t foresee the ‘60s, and we can’t foresee what’s just around the corner either. Let’s remember that it’s always the best of times and the worst of times.

“One of the great fallacies of planning, urban and otherwise, is that planners project trends onward on a steady line, as though growth or decline will go on at a steady rate. One thing you can be sure of is that things won’t develop that way; there’ll be ups and downs. What planners should plan for is keeping the future open and flexible, with opportunity open for as many people as possible. History shows that when some groups are forestalled from taking action, as African-Americans have been, for example, it’s very bad for the health of the whole society.

“Young people give me great hope. As you get older you can’t help realizing what enormous effort it takes to advance even an inch. Luckily, young people don’t have that knowledge yet!”