Photo by Cervin Robinson
Born to a doctor and a nurse in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, Jane Jacobs moved to New York City after graduating high school during the Depression and initially worked as a stenographer and freelance writer. Here she met her husband, architect Robert Jacobs, and raised her family in Greenwich Village, a neighborhood she came to love fiercely, and understand deeply.
In 1952, Jacobs became an associate editor of Architectural Forum and, as such, began to observe more closely city planning in New York. She became increasingly critical of the urban renewal projects of the day, noting that they were rarely as safe, diverse, or economically vibrant as the neighborhoods they were replacing. She gave a speech on this subject at Harvard in 1956 and later wrote an article for Fortune Magazine on the same theme titled “Downtown Is for People.” Galvanized by the response to the article, Jacobs decided to write a book.
With the aid of funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, was published in 1961. The book challenges the tenets of modernist urban planning, criticizing its reliance on rational theory and deductive reasoning. Jacobs advocated that the close study of how people use streets and neighborhoods was key to ensuring the health and vitality of cities. In addition, her harsh criticism of “slum-clearing” and high-rise housing projects was instrumental in discrediting these once universally supported planning practices. Almost fifty years later, the book is still one of the key texts for American architects and planners.
For the duration of her years in New York, Jacobs became increasingly engaged in urban activism. She was instrumental in closing off Washington Square Park to traffic and the development of the West Village Houses. But her most famous role was as chair of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway in the early 1960s. The campaign is considered one of the turning points in the development of New York City: it was one of the first times neighborhood-based opposition to a development project prevailed against the City.
In 1968, Jacobs’ opposition to the Vietnam War prompted the Jacobs family to move to Toronto. There she continued to serve as outspoken critic and activist, as well as a respected author, until her death in 2006. Her later publications—including The Economy of the Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984)—indicate her broadening interests, which encompassed economics and social relations.
Above all, Jane Jacobs is remembered for her belief in the power of individuals to take responsibility for their own environment. She notes that the power to affect the future of great cities and societies begins with observation. “Please look closely,” she exhorted, “(and) while you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”
T. Mennel, J. Steffens, and C. Klemek, eds. Block by Block: Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York. New York: Municipal Art Society of New York and Princeton Architectural Press, 2007.
Jacobs, J., The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
Jacobs, J., The Economy of Cities, New York: Random House, 1969.
Jacobs, J., The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty. New York: Random House, 1980.
Jacobs, J., Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life, New York, Random House, 1984.
Jacobs, J., The Girl on the Hat, London: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Jacobs, J., Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, New York: Random House, 1992.
Jacobs, J., The Nature of Economies, New York, Modern Library, 2000.
Jacobs, J., Introduction to Charles Dickens, Hard Times, New York: Modern Library, 2001.
Jacobs, J., Introduction to Upton Sinclair, The Jungle. New York: Modern Library, 2002.
Jacobs, J., Introduction to Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad; or, The New Pilgrims’ Progress. New York: Modern Library, 2003.
Jacobs, J., Dark Age Ahead, New York: Random House, 2004.
Klemek, C., Jane Jacobs and the Fall of the Urban Renewal Order in New York and Toronto, Journal of Urban History.
Allen, Max., Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, Toronto, Ginger Press, 1997.