Wednesday is the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, the journalist and urban theorist whose 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, changed the trajectory of New York and cities everywhere. In the book, Jacobs argued that the preceding century of urban planning had essentially “arisen on a foundation of nonsense”—that the old, white men who advocated for highways and high-rises, wide streets and buildings setback from sidewalks by acres of grass, were not only clueless but were actively destroying American cities.
Instead, Jacobs wrote, cities should be built with communities and street-level interaction in mind. Small, varied streets and small businesses would allow for the chance interpersonal interactions required for cultures and communities to flourish. Jacobs used Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where she lived (and where I grew up), as a prime example of how neighborhoods should look, and she fought her entire life to ensure it would keep looking that way, battling mega-planner Robert Moses, who wanted to build a highway right through SoHo and the West Village.
Jacobs died in 2006, but dozens of events are being held all over the world to commemorate her life. There’s 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. This year also marks the release of a new book and a new documentary about Jacobs. This is befitting of the perch she still retains in urban planning. She was to her field what Freud was to psychology.
But as often happens when we remember the dead, nearly all of these celebrations and tributes fail to recognize Jacobs as a real person with deeply flawed ideas. Yes, she still deserves praise for challenging the urban-planning maxims of her time. But if we really want to honor her belief that cities can be nearly magical places capable of improving the lives of all of their inhabitants, we have to recognize the limits of her philosophies and the limits of the ways in which we’ve interpreted and remembered them. Looking at the Village today is a great place to start.
The same neighborhood Jacobs lauded for its diversity in the 1960s and ’70s is today a nearly all-white, aesthetically suburban playground for the rich. The average price for a two-bedroom apartment is about $5,000 a month. Those small, varied streets are still there, but the small, community-oriented businesses have been replaced by banks and restaurant chains, upscale cocktail bars, and expensive shoe stores. When I walk its streets now, I mostly feel sad and disconnected, not to mention angry that global wealth has transformed my community into an upscale mall.
Jacobs, to a certain extent, warned of the Village’s imminent transition, arguing that a neighborhood’s outstanding success can ultimately be self-undermining. People are attracted to neighborhoods like the West Village, which become more and more expensive until “one or a few dominating uses finally emerge triumphant … [and] a most intricate and successful organism of economic mutual support and social support has been destroyed by the process,” Jacobs wrote.
It’s not only the Village. Seemingly every Jacobsian paradise, from Portland, Oregon, to San Francisco to the newly revitalized parts of Detroit and New Orleans, is mostly white and well-off. Governments (no doubt swayed by the urban planners whose graduate programs hew to Jacobs’ philosophies) spend millions on implementing Jacobs’ recommendations—making streets more walkable, supporting new, local businesses, de-emphasizing cars—and nearly everywhere they do, gentrification and displacement follow. Dense, pedestrian-friendly spaces don’t have to be accessible only to the affluent, of course. But without commitments to affordable and public housing and even the regulation of rent, any change to a neighborhood that increases its real-estate values will inevitably lead to increased urban inequality. When we boil down Jacobs’ ideas to their simplest dictates, we risk those unsavory consequences.
Even Jacobs recognized the limits of her philosophies, saying Death and Life was not a panacea for the vast inequalities of society but that inequality would need to be addressed for any city to flourish. In the last (and possibly the least popular) book she wrote, 2004’s Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs warned that American cities would become more unequal, boring, corporate, and stricken by police brutality if we did not address underlying issues of societal decay.
But when we celebrate Jacobs today, we don’t celebrate the shortcomings of the urbanism she espoused, because if we did we’d realize how much work there is to accomplish before urban planning can really address her biggest goals. As University of Michigan urban planning professor June Manning Thomas points out, the field now barely attempts to improve the lives of poorer urban communities, instead focusing on visual improvements to already-exclusive spaces like downtown cores. “What we see as ‘normal’ is really the end result of cumulative privilege we’ve been building in this country for middle class whites since the 1920s and 1930s,” Manning Thomas said last year. “We’ve essentially cut ourselves off from seeing the injustice.”
Urban planning associations and schools seem unconcerned with the harder parts of Jacobs’ mission: designing cities that increase racial and economic equality. One survey of the American Planning Association’s members found that fewer than 10 percent were racial minorities. There isn’t a class on race or social justice at Harvard’s school of planning.
There are good examples of equitable urban planning and equitability-focused urban planners. While New York Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to create and preserve 200,000 units of affordable housing is limited in its impact, it also includes semi-robust protections for the poor in areas being redesigned and rezoned to be denser and more pedestrian-friendly—more Jacobsian, that is. That, along with other cities’ recent committals to inclusionary-zoning policies (which force developers to build affordable units along with their market-rate ones) is a sign that planners are starting to get it.
But there’s still a long way to go. Thinking through how to make cities truly equitable is harder than uncritically reaffirming a small selection of the work of Jacobs. If Jacobs remains an almost-deific figure in urban planning, the profession will end up perpetuating what Jacobs fought so hard against: doing things to cities simply because they replicate the ways they’ve been done in the past. If we want to celebrate Jacobs, it’s time to move beyond her.