The vibrant legacy of Jane Jacobs.

Bringing out the dead.
April 26 2006 2:14 PM

Home Remedies

The vibrant legacy of Jane Jacobs.

Jane Jacobs. Click image to expand.
Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, 89, died Tuesday. She was born in Scranton, Pa., but she's best associated with New York City, where she worked as a journalist, and later, with her adopted home, Toronto (she became a Canadian citizen). She was an activist, a widely published writer, and an original thinker. In the weeks to come, much will be written about her central role in shaping our ideas—and our ideals—of urbanism. The praise will be deserved. During the 1960s, a time when the reigning orthodoxy was urban renewal, which generally took the form of urban demolition, she championed a more evolutionary, humanist, and small-scale approach to city planning.

Though neither a designer nor an urban economist, Jacobs wrote what is undoubtedly the most influential book on city planning of the second half of the 20th century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The first sentence is characteristically direct: "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding." Jacobs criticized what she considered the utopian and misguided theories of Modernism, and she also rejected the other chief urban theories that had influenced 20th century planning: the monumental City Beautiful and the countrified Garden City movement. She was not nitpicking. This was a frontal attack on the idea that cities could be designed at all.

Jacobs' own prescription, inasmuch as she had one, was based on an appreciation of the vitality of traditional urban neighborhoods, in particular Greenwich Village in New York, where she lived. Lively and interesting street life, a diversity of uses, residential areas intensified by parks and squares and public buildings, a mixture of old and new buildings, and the importance of what she called districts—areas with a functional and recognizable identity—these were the ingredients of successful urban neighborhoods. Compared with the ambitious and innovative ideas of architects and planners, it sounded ridiculously simple, not to say simplistic.

When The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published in 1961, the professional urbanists were not amused. In his New Yorker column, titled "Mother Jacobs' Home Remedies," Lewis Mumford, a chief spokesman for the importance of planning, called the book a "mingling of sense and sentimentality, of mature judgments and schoolgirl howlers." Even seven years later, the leading architectural and urban academic of that time, John Burchard, would condescendingly refer to Jacobs' book as an "entertaining expression of a point of view [that] had a transitory acclaim."

Transitory? Death and Life, which is still in print, went on to change the way that succeeding generations of architects and planners thought about cities. "Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration," she wrote, "with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves." The second half of her statement never quite came true—the suburbanization of America, which she chose largely to ignore, was too advanced and too powerful. But the current revival of many American downtowns, the converted lofts, the restored historic districts, and the residential real-estate booms in cities like New York, Boston, and San Francisco attest to the essential correctness of her vision.

That vision of the urban good life had wide appeal, but the supply of old cities that offered the requisite mix of street life, architecture, and diversity was limited. The lively city districts that Jacobs championed, including her beloved Village, have become exclusive enclaves, closed to all but the extremely wealthy. She always considered the amenities of city life to be everyday and widely available goods. Little could she have imagined then that they would become luxuries instead.

Witold Rybczynski is Slate's architecture critic His latest book is The Biography of a Building: How Robert Sainsbury and Norman Foster Built a Great Museum. Visit his Web site. Follow him on Twitter.