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Jane Jacobs (1916-2006)

Why Neo-Cons loved communitarian urbanist Jane Jacobs

In the half century following the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs has become the most revered, or at least the most widely referenced urban writer in the world. Prizes and medals are awarded in Jacobs’s name and her ideas shape historic preservation laws as well as new mixed-use designs. She is taken as the patron saint of grassroots movements against bureaucratic fiats that result in residential displacement, building demolition and the boring inanity or the ‘great blight of dullness’, as she wrote, of big, ugly new construction.

Jacobs’s plainspoken critique of the architectural conformity that dogged post-war Modernism challenged the prevailing wisdom about rebuilding cities for the executive class. Her advocacy of the need to maintain the patterns of the antebellum city, with its often chaotic rhythms and finely tuned local scale, contradicted the grand strategies of rationalising do-gooders who wanted to save the city by destroying it.

Appearing in 1961, Jacobs’s book mobilised socially conscious intellectuals who had been skewered by McCarthyism and threatened by the Cold War. Together with the works of the environmentalist writer Rachel Carson and the feminist author Betty Friedan, The Death and Life laid the groundwork for a new kind of protest politics based on where you live, what you eat and who you are. It is not insignificant that all three authors were women.

Tributes rained down when Jacobs died in 2006. In her first adoptive city, New York, where the Pennsylvania-born author and activist worked as a secretary and then as a journalist, the block of Hudson Street where she wrote The Death and Life towards the end of the 1950s was renamed in her honour as Jane Jacobs Way. Toronto, where Jacobs and her family moved in the 1970s (so her sons could avoid being called into military service in the Vietnam War), started a free annual walking tour of the city, Jane’s Walk, on the first weekend of May. As part of the street-level celebration, volunteers now lead over 500 tours in more than 75 cities around the world.

Offering equally weighty symbolic kudos, the highest appointed official in charge of land-use decisions, New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda Burden, has declared herself to be an ardent champion of Jacobs’s ideas.

But in concrete terms, Jacobs’s legacy is less clear. Her preference for low-rise buildings at a variety of rents is honoured more in the pages
of urban planning journals than in city council chambers where zoning laws are decided. Her praise for the social vitality of districts with attractions has morphed into the universally recognised economic value of Destination Culture and the McGuggenisation of many cities. As for the self-guiding communities that she espoused, well, they have been submerged by elected officials who pay more attention to real estate developers than to community planners and torpedoed by economic recession on the one hand and citizens’ tax revolts on the other.

This is not entirely Jacobs’s fault. She wrote during an age of worldwide economic expansion when governments invested heavily in building new roads, subsidising suburban development and rationalising city centres as locations for corporate headquarters − an age, in short, that was typical of the United States and Europe after the Second World War and appears a lot like China now.

Some of the evils that she attacked, including the arrogance of state planners who push people out of their homes, the monolithic architectural projects that swallow old districts whole and the stunning rate of highway construction that moulds cities around space for trucks and cars, embody so much self-interest that not even a Marxist revolution could thwart their forward flow.

And Jacobs was no Marx. Though she opposed the edicts of long-time New York public-sector building czar Robert Moses, and together with her neighbours won significant victories over his plans to tear down parks and buildings and run highways through Lower Manhattan, she did not attack the nexus of economic and state power that supported Moses’s vision. Instead, she attacked ‘planners’, a relatively powerless group compared to developers who build, and banks and insurance companies who finance the building that rips out a city’s heart.

Neither did Jacobs, a communitarian, believe that state action could right the wrongs she deplored. Jacobs did not call for stronger zoning laws to encourage a mix of housing, factories, stores and schools. She did not support more permanent rent controls to ensure a mix of poorer and richer tenants, of successful businesses and start-ups. Jacobs neglected the economic priorities that favoured a shift of investments to suburbs over cities and left the public housing projects architecturally barren and perennially short of funds. Worse, Jacobs wrote that if financially solid families remain, troubled communities will ‘unslum’ themselves. This seems unusually naïve for such an astute activist.

The idea fails to come to grips with entrenched racial bias or the systemic disinvestment that both foreshadows and deepens the ecological misery of unemployment. For these views and her distaste for state intervention, Jacobs won the admiration of Neo-Conservatives who could hardly have shared most of her other political opinions.

Where Jacobs’s ideas work well, they focus on the social web that undergirds microcosmic urban life. Her description of the ‘sidewalk ballet’, the set-piece of the second chapter in The Death and Life, weaves a rhythmic narrative of the butcher, the baker, the bartender and other stalwarts of High Street shops who keep an eye on the street and subtly, without direction from external authorities, exert social control over the unpredictable flow of strangers and friends. Jacobs’s remarkable idea is that the street is pre-eminently a social space. If we ignore the routine interdependencies and everyday diversity a city street enfolds, we lose the qualities that give it life and guarantee its safety.

There is a wonderful photograph of Jacobs in her prime, sitting at the bar of the White Horse Tavern, just down the block from where she lived in Greenwich Village. Wearing big, dark-rimmed eyeglasses and a shapeless raincoat, smiling and holding a cigarette in her right hand, Jacobs would not be mistaken for any of the legions of gentrifiers who followed her call to find the endless fascinations of the city’s historic centre.

But she underestimated the strength of middle class tastes for social homogeneity and aesthetic coherence that drive gentrification.What Jacobs valued − small blocks, cobblestone streets, mixed-uses, local character − have become the gentrifiers’ ideal. This is not the struggling city of working class and ethnic groups, but an idealised image that plays to middle-class tastes.

Jacobs’s challenge to maintain the authenticity of urban life still confronts the fear of difference and the hubris of modernising ambition. At a time in which local shopping streets are the target of attacks against a broader alienation, we urgently need to connect her concern with economic development and urban design to our unsettled social condition.


Jane Jacobs

School of Graduate Studies, Columbia University

First break
Joining the magazine Architectural Forum (1952)

Key Publications
The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
The Economy of Cities (1969)
Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984)
Dark Age Ahead (2004)

American Sociological Association Outstanding Lifetime Contribution Award (2002)
Rockerfeller Foundation creation of Jane Jacobs Medal (2007)

‘Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody’


Joe Wilson • See more work on his website

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