The Woman Who Thought Cities Should Be Fun: Jane Jacobs and Her Revolution In Urban Planning

Jane Jacobs was a Canadian-American activist and writer whose work would almost single-handedly change the way we look at cities.
Christopher McFadden

Jane Jacobs was a Canadian-American writer and activist who helped transform the field of urban planning. Her writings about American cities and her grass-roots organizing also played a key role in successes. 

Jane became highly influential in the fields of urban studies, sociology, and economics.

After working as a reporter and freelance writer, Jane joined the editorial staff of Architectural Forum in 1952. Her first work on urban environments, Death and Life of Great American Cities, was published in 1961. It was a seminal work and became a classic in its own time.

This book argued that urban renewal did not respect the needs of most city-dwellers, a concept alien to most urban planners at the time.

Jane led resistance against the wholesale replacement of urban communities with high rise buildings. She also resisted the loss of communities to newly planned expressways. She is considered the co-founder, along with Lewis Mumford, of the New Urbanist movement.

She saw cities as living ecosystems and took a systematic look at all elements of a city. Jane looked at parts of cities not individually but as parts of an interconnected system. 

Her last book, Dark Age Ahead, was published in 2004 and Jane died in 2006 in Toronto, Canada. 

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”. - Jane Jacobs.

Early years

Jane Jacobs was born Jane Butzner on the 4th May 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Jane was one of four children to John Decker Butzner, a doctor, and Bess Robison Butzner, a teacher, and nurse. Jane had two brothers and a sister.

The family was a Jewish family who lived in the predominantly Roman Catholic city of Scranton.

Jane later attended and graduated from Scranton High School. There she was an indifferent student who preferred to read on her own rather than listen to the teachers.

Despite having no formal training as an urban planner, Jane would go on to revolutionize the way we look at our cities. Jane's visions were inspired by her time living in New York City's Greenwich Village neighborhood. Here a mixture of townhouses, walk-up apartment buildings and narrow streets all developed in her a focus on 'the community'.

Jane's time in New York

Jane worked for a year unpaid as an assistant at the Scranton Tribune directly after high school.

During the height of the Great Depression in 1935, she and her sister Betty moved to New York City where she passed her time as a stenographer and freelance writer. She was particularly interested in writing about the city itself. They initially set up camp in Brooklyn, New York but Jane was quickly seduced by the streets of Greenwich Village. She was particularly fond of the non-grid structure when compared to the rest of Manhattan.

They soon moved there.

Her first few years in the city would see her taking a variety of jobs, mainly working as a freelance writer. She would often write about the working districts of the city. 

Later she said that her early experiences "gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like."

The Woman Who Thought Cities Should Be Fun: Jane Jacobs and Her Revolution In Urban Planning
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Jane studied at Columbia University's School of General Studies for two years. There she took courses in geology, zoology, law, political science, and economics and was pleased with the marks she got.

"For the first time I liked school and for the first time, I made good marks. This was almost my undoing because after I had garnered, statistically, a certain number of credits I became the property of Barnard College at Columbia, and once I was the property of Barnard I had to take, it seemed, what Barnard wanted me to take, not what I wanted to learn. Fortunately, my high-school marks had been so bad that Barnard decided I could not belong to it and I was therefore allowed to continue getting an education." - Ideas that Matter.

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Post Graduation

After graduation, Jane took on a writing position at a magazine called Iron Age. Whilst there she was a victim of discrimination and later advocated for equal pay for women and workers' rights to unionize.

During the Second World War, Jane became a feature writer for the Office of War. Later she became a reporter for Amerika, a publication of the U.S. State Department, and continued to write for Amerika post-war.

Jane was married to architect Robert Hyde Jacobs Junior. The couple tied the knot in 1944. The Jacobs' had two sons, James and Ned, and a daughter, Burgin. 

Robert was an architect who worked on airplane design during the Second World War. Post-war he returned to his career in architecture. Jane also returned to her writing. The couple then bought a house in Greenwich Village.

Jane, who was still working for the U.S. State Department, drew suspicion during McCarthyism purges of Communists in the department post-war.

Although Jane was deeply anti-communist, she was pro-union. She had come under suspicion by the State Department for her appreciation of Saul Alinsky, a highly controversial advocate for social change through radical activism.

Despite all this, her written response to the Loyalty Security Board defended free speech and the protection of extremist ideas.

Post Amerika

Jane resigned from Amerika in 1952 when it was announced that it would be moving to Washington D.C. After leaving Amerika, Jane joined the Architectural Forum, published by Henry Luce of Time Inc. Jane began taking assignments on urban planning and later became an associate editor for the publication.

It was during this time that she started to report on several urban developments, projects in Philadelphia and East Harlem. She came to believe that much of the common consensus on urban planning exhibited little compassion for the people involved, especially African Americans.

She observed that “revitalization” often came at the expense of the community. 

She was tasked with covering a development in Philadelphia in 1954. The project was designed by Edmund Bacon. Contrary to the norm, Jane would criticise Bacon's plan for ignoring poor-African Americans and threatening the active life of the community.

In 1955, Jane met William Kirk. Kirk was an Episcopal minister who worked for revitalizing East Harlem. He spent his time visiting the Architectural Forum offices to describe his efforts and introduced Jacobs to the neighborhood.

The Woman Who Thought Cities Should Be Fun: Jane Jacobs and Her Revolution In Urban Planning
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Jane's Harvard speech

Jane delivered a much-appreciated lecture at Harvard in 1956.  She was actually a substitute speaker for her Forum colleague, Douglas Haskell. From this point on she was perceived as a threat by real estate owners, and developers.

She talked about her observations on East Harlem, and the importance of “strips of chaos” over “our concept of urban order.” 

Her speech was generally very well received.

In 1958, Jane was invited to write a piece for Fortune. Her article was called 'Downtown is for People'. The piece was a direct criticism of Robert Moses and his work on the Lincoln Center.

Her criticism focused on the fact that redevelopment often neglected the needs of the community by focusing too heavily on concepts like scale, order, and efficiency.

The Woman Who Thought Cities Should Be Fun: Jane Jacobs and Her Revolution In Urban Planning
Source: Yoho2001/Wikimedia Commons

This criticism was not well-received by supporters of urban renewal at Architectural Forum and Fortune. Particularly C.D Jackson, the publisher of Fortune.

Also in 1958, Jane Jacobs received a large grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to study city planning. She would link up with the New School in New York and three years later published the ground-breaking Death and Life of Great American Cities.

In 1962, Jane would resign from Architectural Forum to focus her time as a full-time author and mother. She openly opposed the Vietnam War and criticised the construction of the World Trade Center. In her opinion, it was a disaster for Manhattan's waterfront.

Life in Canada

Jacobs and her family later relocated to Toronto, Canada in 1968. They quickly received Canadian citizenship. 

During her time in Canada Jane wrote more books and continue her activism.

In 1969 Jane released her first book in Canada, The Economy of Cities. As the title suggests, this book focuses on Jane's postulation that cities are the primary drivers for economic development.

The move was, in part, prompted by their concern over their son's potential drafting for the Vietnam War. Jane began to focus on her writing after leaving New York. She would even begin to expand the scope of her work.

She also took part in the opposition movement to the Spadina Expressway and the associated network of expressways that were planned for Toronto.

In her 1980 book, The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over SeparationJane offered her urbanistic perspective on the matter of Quebec's sovereignty. She advocated for the creation of a province of Toronto, distinct from Ontario.

In 1997, Jane actively opposed the amalgamation of the cities of Metro Toronto. She feared that individual neighborhoods would have less power and needed the construction of the bridge joining the city's waterfront and Airport.

She also argued against a plan of Royal St. George's College, who wanted to reconfigure their facilities. She suggested that the school be forced from the neighborhood entirely, but her proposals were rejected.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

With this book being arguably the most influential work on city planning in the second half of the 20th Century, it might be worth spending a little time on it.

The book's introduction makes its intentions very clear:-

"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to Sunday supplements and women's magazines. "

The Woman Who Thought Cities Should Be Fun: Jane Jacobs and Her Revolution In Urban Planning
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Throughout the book, Jane observes the commonplace realities of cities. What elements make something beautiful and another thing ugly, why slums resist change and how downtowns shift their centers.

The book places its attention firmly on 'great cities', primarily their 'inner areas'. Her principles could also be applied to suburbs or towns or small cities.

Jacobs' book outlines the history of city planning as well as how America put the principles in place after WW2. Her work argued very strongly against Decentrists who wanted to decentralize populations. She also argued against followers of the architect Le Corbusier. His 'Radiant City' idea put great faith in high-rise buildings surrounded by parks. High-rise buildings for commercial purposes, high-rise buildings for a luxury living, and high-rise low-income projects.

She argued that conventional urban reworking was harmful to city life. Many theories at the time of 'urban renewal' assumed that living in a city was undesirable. Jacobs took exception to this and argues that planners ignored the intuition and experience of actual city-dwellers.

It was they who, after all, tended to be most vocal when it came to major changes to cities. Planners would put expressways through neighborhoods and ruin their local ecosystems.

She also despised the way low-income housing was introduced. It was supplied in a segregated way that disconnected the residents from natural neighborhood interactions. This tended to make neighborhoods more unsafe and affected the psychology of residents.

Diversity was a key principle for Jacobs. What she called "a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses." 

The benefits, she argued, were of mutual economic and social support. 

Jane's guiding principles

She advocated that there were four principles to create diversity:

1. Each neighborhood should have a mixture of uses and functions. Commerical, industrial, residential and cultural spaces should be mixed, not separated. 

2. Multi-storey blocks, if present, should be short. This would promote walking to get to other parts of the areas. It would also promote interaction between residents.

3. Areas should contain a mixture of old and new. Though older buildings might need some renovation and renewal. They should not be simply razed in favor of new constructions. This would lead to focussing on historical preservation of the neighborhood.

4. Jane Jacobs argued that a sufficiently dense population was created safety and creativity. This was contrary to conventional thinking at the time. It should also create more opportunities for human interaction. Denser neighborhoods would create 'eyes on the street' more than separate people.

All four must be present, she argued, for adequate diversity. Each city would likely express them differently but they should all be there in some form.

Jane Jacob's Activism

During her time on the editorial staff of Architectural Forum, Jane rallied against the push to modernize urban areas. Her main resistance was against the perceived destruction of neighborhoods. 

To this end, her first book, Death and Life of Great American Cities, hit the shelves in 1961. In this book, Jacobs explores what makes a neighborhood vital and explains why it clashed with contemporary thinking on urban planning at the time. In this ground-breaking book, she also argued that urban renewal did not respect the need for city-dwellers. 

It also introduced sociological concepts like 'the eyes on the street' and 'social capital'.

Within it, she cited many examples of great neighborhoods around the U.S. Of course, her own in New York City's Greenwich Village, is one of them. Jacobs was also an active campaigner as well as author. She worked on many campaigns to preserve certain neighborhoods.

Jane ended up mobilizing public opinion to protect their existing neighborhoods. Especially for practices like 'slum clearances'.

She even served on the New York Planning Board for some time.

Jane is especially well known for her vehement fight against Robert Moses' plan to build a highway through Greenwich and The West Village of lower Manhattan. Moses had already done similar works in New York City.

To this end, she was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway. This would have passed directly through Washington Square. 

This would have destroyed the park. Her activism at this development centered around preserving the park. She was even arrested during one demonstration. These campaigns were turnaround points in removing Moses from power and changing the direction of city planning.

Jane's legacy and death

Jane Jacobs is fondly remembered as the mother of 'Vancouverism'. This is an urban planning and architectural technique characterized by medium-height, commercial base, and arrow, high rise residential towers. The idea is to accommodate high populations whilst preserving specific corridors. 

In 1984, Jane wrote and published Cities and the Wealth of Nations. This book expands on her earlier 1969 work reinforcing the point that cities, not nations, are the drivers of wealth.

Jane later wrote and published Systems of Survival in 1992. In this book, Jane explores and addresses the moral values that underpin our working lives.

Jane wasn't without her detractors, however. She was often accused of being insensitive to racial inequalities that were apparent in the slums of the U.S. This was because she advocated for the preservation of older buildings because their low economic value made them affordable for poorer people.

Jane Jacobs was selected to be an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996. This was in honor of her seminal writings and thought-provoking commentaries on urban development. She also received the American Sociological Association Outstanding Lifetime Contribution Award.

Jane also received the second ever Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum in 2000. This award is given for exemplary practice, scholarship, or criticism in architecture, historic preservation, and urban design.

Although her ideas of planning were praised at time as universal, they were criticized as inapplicable to cities in the Third World.

The Woman Who Thought Cities Should Be Fun: Jane Jacobs and Her Revolution In Urban Planning
Source: Sam Beebe/Wikimedia Commons

In her final book,  Dark Age Ahead (2004), Jane Jacobs expressed concern about cultural decay.

Jane passed away peacefully on April 25, 2006, in Toronto, Canada. 

Following her death, in 2007, the Rockefeller Foundation created an award in her honor. The Jane Jacobs Medal. The Canadian Urban Institute also offers an award in her name - the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jane Jacob's work helped change the trajectory of New York and cities around the world. Through her books and activism, she cemented the idea that cities should be centered around their communities and street-level interactions. Her visions of small, varied streets and small businesses would allow for the chance interpersonal interactions required for cultures and communities to flourish.

Although Jane Jacobs died in 2006, dozens of events are being held all over the world to commemorate her life. There is even a lecture series in New York, a symposium on her work in the Netherlands, “Jane Jacobs Walks” in several cities, and a new version of an opera about her battle with Moses. 

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