April 26, 2006


Jane Jacobs, 89; Writer, Activist Spoke Out Against Urban Renewal (Adam Bernstein, April 26, 2006, Washington Post)

Jane Jacobs, 89, a writer and activist who condemned urban-renewal efforts for devastating inner-city neighborhoods and, despite an initial reputation as a radical and heretic, was vindicated as an influential thinker on city planning, died April 25 at a hospital in Toronto. She apparently had a stroke, according to media reports.

The urban-renewal movement of the mid-20th century spent hundreds of millions of dollars clearing communities that were deemed slums, building low-income housing projects and creating parks and highways. Anyone criticizing the model, with its political backing, was not looked on kindly.

In this atmosphere came Mrs. Jacobs, a middle-aged, self-taught architectural and urban-planning specialist with Architectural Forum magazine. She was an incautious woman, at times disheveled in appearance, who tended to anger very powerful people. Several times, she courted arrest to speak out against plans by Robert Moses, a New York City commissioner whose portfolio included oversight of the city's parks and roads.

In her name-making book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), she recorded what she considered the human toll of urban renewal.

She spoke of the displacement of thousands of residents and the destruction of small, if untidy, communities whose diversity she said was crucial to a city's allure. She maintained that urban renewal worsened the problems it was intended to solve: high crime, architectural conformity and a general dullness infecting daily life.

She attacked the arrogance of city planners for making decisions without consulting those affected.

"The planner's greatest shortcoming, I think, is lack of intellectual curiosity about how cities work," she told the New York Times in 1969. "They are taught to see the intricacy of cities as mere disorder. Since most of them believe what they have been taught, they do not inquire about the processes that lie behind the intricacy. I doubt that knowledgeable city planning will come out of the present profession. It is more likely to arise as an offshoot of economics."

When "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" was published, the director of the American Society of Planning Officials urged members to "batten down the hatches." The usually urbane urban-planning expert Lewis Mumford, insulted by his portrayal in the book, wrote a critique of Mrs. Jacobs printed in the New Yorker magazine under the heading "Mother Jacobs' Home Remedies for Urban Cancer."

Others considered her a visionary.

Jane Jacobs, Urban Activist, Is Dead at 89 (DOUGLAS MARTIN, 4/25/06, NY Times)
Jane Jacobs, the writer and thinker who brought penetrating eyes and ingenious insight to the sidewalk ballet of her own Greenwich Village street and came up with a book that challenged and changed the way people view cities, died today in Toronto, where she lived. She was 89.

She died at a Toronto hospital, said a distant cousin, Lucia Jacobs, who gave no specific cause of death.

In her book "Death and Life of Great American Cities," written in 1961, Ms. Jacobs's enormous achievement was to transcend her own withering critique of 20th-century urban planning and propose radically new principles for rebuilding cities. At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism β€” in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble.

Ms. Jacobs's thesis was supported and enlarged by her deep, eclectic reading. But most compelling was her description of the everyday life she witnessed from her home above a candy store at 555 Hudson Street.

She wrote the book on cities (WARREN GERARD, Apr. 26, 2006, Totonto STAR)
Jane Jacobs was an urban fable.

She was a writer, intellectual, analyst, ethicist and moral thinker, activist, self-made economist and a fearless critic of inflexible authority.

Jacobs died yesterday in a Toronto hospital. She was 89. Her 90th birthday would have been next week.

An American who chose to be Canadian, Jacobs was a leader in the fights to preserve neighbourhoods and kill expressways, first in New York City, and then in Toronto.

Her efforts to stop the proposed expressway between Manhattan Bridge on east Manhattan and the Holland Tunnel on the west contributed toward saving SoHo, Chinatown, and the western part of Greenwich Village.

In Toronto, her leadership galvanized the movement that stopped the proposed Spadina Expressway. It would have cut a swath through the lively Annex neighbourhood and parts of the downtown.

Toronto Mayor David Miller, who called Jacobs both a friend and a mentor, interrupted yesterday's city council meeting to announce to his colleagues that Jacobs had died.

"The power of her ideas is what helped make this city choose a different path, a path where you have vibrant downtown neighbourhoods where people could live, a path where you didn't have expressways cutting through neighbourhoods," Miller told reporters.

"She gave me all sorts of advice over time. The way she gave you advice was she invited you over for tea. And you had tea and you talked and if you were smart, you kept quiet and you listened because you could really learn from Jane Jacobs."

Her son, Ned Jacobs, said in an interview from Vancouver that his mother had been in hospital for a few days.

"She died of old age. She just wore out," he said. "Every part of her was worn out. She was working as best she could right to the end."

Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, became a bible for neighbourhood organizers and what she termed the "foot people."

It made the case against the utopian planning culture of the times β€” residential highrise development, expressways through city hearts, slum clearances and desolate downtowns.

She believed that residential and commercial activity should be in the same place, that the safest neighbourhoods teem with life, short winding streets are better than long straight ones, lowrise housing is better than impersonal towers, that a neighbourhood is where people talk to one another. She liked the small-scale.

Former Toronto mayor David Crombie said that while people see her as a city builder, affecting the city form, her impact was much bigger and deeper.

"The most important thing she did for me and us was remind us that ideas matter, and the ideas that were most important are the ones that mattered to us," Crombie said.

Not hard to best Robert Moses and Lewis Mumford now, but she did it when they were riding high.

-Jane Jacobs (Wikipedia)
-Jane Jacobs Writing on the Web (The Preservation Institute)
-The Jane Jacobs Home Page
-INTERVIEW: Jane Jacobs Interviewed by Jim Kunstler (Metropolis Magazine, March 2001)
-INTERVIEW: City Views: Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy. (Interviewed by Bill Steigerwald, June 2001, Reason)
-T.O. owes debt to Jacobs (CHRISTOPHER HUME, 4/26/06, Toronto Star)

More than most cities, Toronto owes a huge debt of gratitude to Jane Jacobs.

Jacobs, who died yesterday eight days short of her 90th birthday, loved this city almost as much as it loved her.

Even if she hadn't moved here from New York in 1968, she would have left this town a different place. But the mere fact of her presence, which the city wore like a badge of honour, ensured that her ideas were always close to the centre of any debate about the future of urbanism in Toronto.

Plain-spoken, utterly unpretentious, self-taught and full of sly humour, Jacobs was disarming in the directness of her opinions. She despised jargon and railed against experts, especially planners and politicians, whom she considered the cause of many of the problems that have plagued North American cities since the end of World War II.

In her seminal 1961 work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she did for urbanism what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did for the environment. Though untrained in any formal sense β€” she studied neither urban planning nor architecture nor economics β€” Jacobs had the power of being able to see what was actually in front of her, rather than what she was told to see.

Indeed, she used to say she wrote Death And Life after having visited countless urban renewal projects in the 1950s that were never quite as their promoters described.

-Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) (FEE, April 26, 2006)
-REVIEW: of Cities and the Wealth of Nations by Jane Jacobs (John Chamberlain, The Freeman)
-REVIEW: of Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics by Jane Jacobs (Peter J. Boettke, The Freeman)
-Building on Ideas for Urban Conservation (LINDA BAKER, March 4, 2001, NY Times)
-ARTICLE: Jane Jacobs still helping to shape cities: "Death and Life of Great American Cities" author influential guide to new generation of urban planners (CNN, November 23, 2000)
-PROFILE: CITIES AND SONGS (Adam Gopnik, 2004-05-17, The New Yorker)

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 26, 2006 10:31 AM

One wonders what she would have thought of the Kelo Decision.

Posted by: Bruno at April 26, 2006 10:58 AM

she did for urbanism what Rachel Carson's Silent Spring did for the environment

It's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Posted by: David Cohen at April 26, 2006 11:32 AM

She had this to say, Bruno:

"In her brief, Jacobs stated, “The costs of development takings are disproportionately inflicted on poor and minority communities, because these groups are disadvantaged in the political process, especially relative to the powerful corporate and private interests that benefit from economic development condemnations.”


A truly great, and realistic, thinker and critic will be greatly missed.

Posted by: Brad S at April 26, 2006 12:13 PM

David: That's all right; each of them did for her respective discipline what Margaret Mead did for cultural anthropology.

Posted by: Lou Gots at April 26, 2006 12:18 PM

Jacobs had a two-sided effect on New York -- while her takedown of the Lower Manhattan Expressway (and the concurrently-planned Mid-Manhattan Expressway along 30th Street) prevented the central city from being blighted by two elevated highways that likely would have been obsolete within a few years of their construction, her crusade also helped spawn the BANANA movement (Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anybody) in the city that not only had stopped any highways from being built, but also has prevented any additions to mass transit lines because people and businesses would be inconvenced for a few years while a avenue or two is dug up.

Posted by: John at April 26, 2006 2:18 PM

Lou and David,

While Mead and Carson were hacks, Jacobs appears to have actually accomplished something.

Posted by: Bruno at April 27, 2006 1:46 AM