Tuesday, April 25, 2006


Jane Jacobs wrote the seminal critique of "urban renewal".

What she most hated was taking time away from her writing, which she said was her way of thinking. And in at least five distinct fields of inquiry, she thought deeply and innovatively: urban design, urban history, regional economics, the morality of the economy and the nature of economic growth.

Her major books followed a logical progression, each leading naturally to the next. From writing about how people functioned within cities, she analyzed how cities function within nations, how nations function with one another, how everyone functions in a world of conflicting moral principles, and, finally, how economies grow like biological organisms.

A small book in 1980 arguing for Quebec separatism created a stir in Canada, while a memoir, which she edited, of her great-aunt's experience as a school teacher in rural Alaska impressed reviewers with its homespun wisdom in 1996.

But it is "Death and Life," published by Random House, that rocked the planning and architectural establishment and continues to influence a third generation of students who can still find the book in college bookstores.

On one level, it represented the first liberal attack on the liberal idea of urban renewal. At the same time, The New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson saw an old-fashioned vision of community that he compared to Thornton Wilder's fictional Grover's Corners. Ms. Jacobs herself thought the book's continuing appeal was that it plumbed the depths of human nature like a good novel.

Herbert Muschamp, The Times's chief architecture critic at the time, wrote in 2003 that Ms. Jacobs's book was "one of 20th-century architecture's most traumatic events," in part because Ms. Jacobs was dismissive about the importance of design. In recent years, she had become an inspiration to architects and planners who espouse what they call the "New Urbanism," an effort to promote social interaction by incorporating such Jacobean features as ground-floor retail in suburban developments.

Patrick Pinnell, an architect associated with this school, said "Death and Life" represented almost the last expression of optimism about American cities. As early as 1974, John E. Zuccotti, then chairman of the New York City Planning Commission, called Ms. Jacobs a prophet and himself a "neo-Jacobean" when he announced a smaller-scale, more sensitive urban planning approach.[NYT]

Her ideas still have resonance today...

"Death and Life" made four recommendations for creating municipal diversity: 1. A street or district must serve several primary functions. 2. Blocks must be short. 3. Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals. 4. Population must be dense.

These seemingly simple notions represented a major rethinking of modern planning. They were coupled with fierce condemnations of the writings of the planners Sir Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard, as well as those of the architect Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, who championed their ideal of graceful towers rising over exquisite open spaces.[NYT]

The influence of Jane Jacobs will be felt for a long time. RIP

Jane Jacobs, Urban Activist, Is Dead at 89: New York Times

Nov 5, 1961: Lloyd Rodwin's book review of Jacobs, Neighors are Needed, for the New York Times.

The Galvin Opinion recently wrote about Grenier's & Patitsas'
The Liturgy of the City Street

Foreward by Jane Jacobs to
The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Washington Post and how
Jane Jacobs knew the folly of liberals urban planning

Update: Head over to Mirror of Justice which is more edifying than this blog.


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