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Who Was Jane Jacobs and What Was Her Impact on Cities?

Jane Jacobs was an American-Canadian journalist, author, theorist, and activist who influenced urban studies, sociology, and economics. She advocated for the needs of people in urban development, and had a massive impact on the way we think of city planning today. 


Jacobs organized grassroots efforts to protect neighborhoods from urban renewal and slum clearance – in particular plans by Robert Moses to overhaul her own Greenwich Village neighborhood. She was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have passed directly through an area of Manhattan that later became known as SoHo, as well as part of Little Italy and Chinatown. She was arrested in 1968 for inciting a crowd at a public hearing on that project. After moving to Toronto in 1968, she joined the opposition to the Spadina Expressway and the associated network of expressways in Toronto that were planned and under construction.As a woman and a writer who criticized experts in the male-dominated field of urban planning, Jacobs endured scorn from established figures. Routinely, she was described first as a housewife,  as she did not have a college degree or any formal training in urban planning; as a result, her lack of credentials was seized upon as grounds for criticism.  However, the influence of her concepts eventually was acknowledged by highly respected professionals such as Richard Florida and Robert Lucas.

Jane Jacobs’ Life and Career 


Jacobs was born in 1916 in the coal mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor and a former school teacher and nurse. After graduating from high school, she took an unpaid position as the assistant to the women’s page editor at the Scranton Tribune. A year later, in the middle of the Depression, she left Scranton for New York City. During her first several years in the city she held a variety of jobs, working mainly as a stenographer and freelance writer, often writing about working districts in the city. These experiences, she explains, “gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like.”After attending Columbia University’s School of General Studies for two years, Butzner found a job at Iron Age magazine. Her 1943 article on economic decline in Scranton was well publicized and led the Murray Corporation of America to locate a warplane factory there. Encouraged by this success, Butzner petitioned the War Production Board to support more operations in Scranton. Experiencing job discrimination at Iron Age, she also advocated for equal pay for women and for the right of workers to unionize

She became a feature writer for the Office of War Information and then a reporter for Amerika, a publication of the U.S. State Department in the Russian language department. While working for the Office of War Information she met her husband, architect Robert Jacobs. Working for the State Department during the McCarthy era, Jacobs received a questionnaire about her political beliefs and loyalties. Jacobs was anti-communist and had left the Federal Workers Union because of its apparent communist sympathies. Nevertheless, she was pro-union and purportedly appreciated the writing of Saul Alinsky; therefore she was under suspicion.In 1952 Jacobs became associate editor of Architectural Forum, allowing her to more closely observe the mechanisms of city planning and urban renewal. In the process, she became increasingly critical of conventional planning theory and practice, observing that many of the city rebuilding projects she wrote about were not safe, interesting, alive, or economically sound. She gave a speech on this issue at Harvard in 1956, and William H. Whyte invited her to write a corresponding article in Fortunemagazine, titled “Downtown is for People.” In 1961 she presented these observations and her own prescriptions in the landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, challenging the dominant establishment of modernist professional planning and asserting the wisdom of empirical observation and community intuition.In 1956, while standing in for Douglas Haskell of Architectural Forum, Jacobs delivered a lecture at Harvard University. She addressed leading architects, urban planners, and intellectuals (including Lewis Mumford), speaking on the topic of East Harlem. She urged this audience to “respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.” Contrary to her expectations, the talk was received with enthusiasm, but it also marked her as a threat to established urban planners, real estate owners, and developers. 


During the 1960s Jacobs also became involved in urban activism, spearheading local efforts to oppose the top-down neighborhood clearing and highway building championed by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. In 1962 she became the chairman of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, in reaction to Moses’ plans to build a highway through Manhattan’s Washington Square Park and West Village. Her efforts to stop the expressway led to her arrest during a demonstration in 1968, and the campaign is often considered to be one of the turning points in the development of New York City. Moses had previously pushed through the Cross-Bronx Expressway and other motorways despite neighborhood opposition, and the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway was an important victory for local community interests and an instigator of Moses’s fall from power. Jacobs’ harsh criticism of “slum-clearing” and high-rise housing projects was also instrumental in discrediting these once universally supported planning practices.

In 1968 Jacobs moved with her family to Toronto, in opposition to the Vietnam War. In Toronto, she remained an outspoken critic of top-down city planning. In the early 1970s she helped lead the Stop Spadina Campaign, to prevent the construction of a major highway through some of Toronto’s liveliest neighborhoods. She also advocated for greater autonomy of the City of Toronto, criticized the bloated electric company Ontario Hydro, supported broad revisions in Toronto’s Official Plan and other planning policies, and opposed expansion of the Toronto Island Airport. After publishing The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her interests and writings broadened, encompassing more discussion of economics, morals, and social relations. Her subsequent books include The Economy of Cities (1969); The Question of Separatism (1980); Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984); Systems of Survival(1993); and most recently The Nature of Economies (2000). She became a Canadian citizen in 1974 and lived in Toronto until her death on April 25th, 2006.


Jane Jacobs’ Books

1.The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and life of Great American Cities is a 1961 book by writer and activist Jane Jacobs. The book is a critique of 1950s urban planning policy, which it holds responsible for the decline of many city neighborhoods in the United States. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was described by The New York Times as “perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning. . . . [It] can also be seen in a much larger context. It is first of all a work of literature; the descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet and the bitingly satiric account of traditional planning theory can still be read for pleasure even by those who long ago absorbed and appropriated the book’s arguments.” Jane Jacobs, an editor and writer on architecture in New York City in the early sixties, argued that urban diversity and vitality were being destroyed by powerful architects and city planners. Rigorous, sane, and delightfully epigrammatic, Jane Jacobs’s tour de force is a blueprint for the humanistic management of cities. It remains sensible, knowledgeable, readable, and indispensable. 

In summarizing the development of contemporary city planning theory, she begins with the Garden City of Ebenezer Howard. The Garden City was conceived as a new master-planned form, a self-sufficient town removed from the noise and squalor of late 19th century London, ringed by agriculture green belts, with schools and housing surrounding a highly prescribed commercial center. The Garden City would allow a maximum of 30,000 residents in each town, and called for a permanent public authority to carefully regulate land use and ward off the temptation to increase commercial activity or population density.  Jacobs tracks Howard’s influence through American luminaries Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein, Henry Wright, and Catherine Bauer, a collection of thinkers that Bauer referred to as “Decentrists.” The Decentrists proposed to use regional planning as a means to ameliorate the woes of congested cities, attracting residents to a new life in lower-density fringes and suburbs and thereby thinning out the crowded urban core. Jacobs highlights the anti-urban biases of the Garden City advocates and the Decentrists, especially their shared intuitions that communities should be self-contained units; that commingled land use created a chaotic, unpredictable, and negative environment; that the street was a bad locus for human interactions; that houses should be turned away from the street toward sheltered green spaces; that super-blocks fed by arterial roads were superior to small blocks with overlapping cross-roads; that any significant details should be dictated by permanent plan rather than shaped by organic dynamism; and that population density should be discouraged, or at least disguised to create a sense of isolation.

Jacobs continues her survey of orthodox urbanism with Le Corbusier, whose Radiant City concept envisioned twenty-four towering skyscrapers within a Great Park. Superficially at odds with the low-rise, low-density ideals of the Decentrists, Le Corbusier presented his vertical city, with its 1,200 inhabitants per acre, as a way of extending the primary Garden City concepts – the super-block, regimented neighborhood planning, easy automobile access, and the insertion of large grassy expanses to keep pedestrians off the streets – into the city itself, with the explicit goal of reinventing stagnant downtowns. Jacobs concludes her introduction with a reference to the City Beautiful movement, which dotted downtown areas with civic centers, baroque boulevards, and new monument parks. These efforts borrowed concepts from other contexts, such as single-use public space disconnected from natural walking routes and the imitation of the exposition grounds at the World’s Fair in Chicago.

Jacobs admits that the ideas of the Garden City and the Decentrists made sense on their own terms: a suburban town appealing to privacy-oriented, automobile-loving personalities should tout its green space and low-density housing. Jacobs’ anti-orthodox frustration stems from the fact that their anti-urban biases somehow became an inextricable part of the mainstream academic and political consensus on how to design cities themselves, enshrined in course curricula and federal and state legislation affecting, inter alia, housing, mortgage financing, urban renewal, and zoning decisions. “This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them.” She is less sympathetic toward Le Corbusier, noting with dismay that the dream city, however impractical and detached from the actual context of existing cities, “was hailed deliriously by architects, and has gradually been embodied in scores of projects, ranging from low-income public housing to office building projects.” She expresses further concern that, in seeking to avoid becoming contaminated by “the workaday city,” isolated City Beautiful efforts dismally failed to attract visitors, were prone to unsavory loitering and dispirited decay, and ironically hastened the pace of urban demise.


2. The Economy of Cities 

The Economy of Cities (1969) discusses the importance of diversity to a city’s prosperity, and it, too, challenged much of the conventional wisdom on urban planning. The book investigates the delicate way cities balance the interplay between the domestic production of goods and the ever-changing tide of imports. Using case studies of developing cities in the ancient, pre-agricultural world, and contemporary cities on the decline, like the financially irresponsible New York City of the mid-sixties, Jacobs identifies the main drivers of urban prosperity and growth, often via counterintuitive and revelatory lessons.

The book ends with an unresolved enigma. “Current theory,” Mrs. Jacobs writes, “assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that is, rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work.” The city work that is genuinely vital comes from small producers and tradesmen who can add “new work to older work,” rarely from huge units, and never in one-industry towns. Among her models—perhaps one should say heroes—are the bicycle manufactures of Tokyo who created an industry from the skills and experience of hundreds of little repair shops, and a New York dressmaker named Ida Rosenthal who, some forty years ago, became dissatisfied with the way her creations hung on her customers. Mrs. Rosenthal there-upon invented the brassiere and thus built the foundations of the Maidenform Company. In both instances new work was added to older work; in both, the entrepreneurs were small producers who shifted their activities; both reflect, according to Mrs. Jacobs, the vitality of cities.


3. The Question of Separatism 

In this, her third and least-known book, first published in 1980, Jane Jacobs examines not only the particular question of Quebec and Canada, but also the larger issue of sovereignty and autonomy in general. Using Norway as a model, Jacobs details that country’s campaign of peaceful persistence that led to breaking ties with Sweden and suggests that Canada and Canadians should be inspired by the example. An essential component of Jacobs’s urban activism, this new edition of the book incorporates and expands the 1979 Massey Lectures, Canadian Cities and Sovereignty-Association, commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Also included is a previously unpublished exclusive interview with Jane Jacobs in her Toronto home in 2005, 25 years after the book appeared and 10 years after the 1995 Quebec referendum. In these musings, she reasserts and updates her thoughts on Separatism and addresses new issues such as tar sand development in Alberta, the finance of gambling, and the future of the Euro and of Europe.


4. Cities and the Wealth of Nations 

In this eye-opening work of economic theory, Jane Jacobs argues that it is cities—not nations—that are the drivers of wealth. Challenging centuries of economic orthodoxy, in Cities and the Wealth of Nations the beloved author contends that healthy cities are constantly evolving to replace imported goods with locally-produced alternatives, spurring a cycle of vibrant economic growth. Intelligently argued and drawing on examples from around the world and across the ages, here Jacobs radically changes the way we view our cities—and our entire economy. 

In reality, the city for Jacobs provides the mid-range link — what some have called the “meso” — level of activity — between the “micro”-economic activity of individuals and the “macro”-economic activity of nations and empires. Even to address this very tough conceptual problem, Jacobs has provided an enormous service to the intellectual community. She is not of the schools that are attached, limpetlike, to determinist explanations. Choices can be and are made. Nor is she of the schools that indiscriminantly embrace every- thing from geography to metaphysics in their urge to explain. Some things do matter more than others.


5. Systems of Survival 

Systems of Survival is a book written by Jane Jacobs in 1992, that describes two fundamental and distinct ethical systems, or syndromes as she calls them: that of the Guardian and that of Commerce. She argues that these supply direction for the conduct of human life within societies, and understanding the tension between them can help us with public policy and personal choices. Jacobs uses the term “ethical syndrome” rather than “ethical system”. “Syndrome” in her usage does not mean “disease” or “disorder”, but merely, from its Greek roots, “set of elements that go together”. She argues that each syndrome arose naturally out of different modes of human behavior, but that they can conflict and cause serious problems if not understood.

In the preface, Jacobs explains, “This book explores the morals and values that underpin viable working life. Like the other animals, we find and pick up what we can use, and appropriate territories. But unlike the other animals, we also trade and produce for trade. Because we possess these two radically different ways of dealing with our needs, we also have two radically different systems of morals and values – both systems valid and necessary.” The book is written in a form of a platonic dialogue where the characters discover and explore the principles that make up each of the two syndromes. One system is the Guardian Moral Syndrome and contains 15 precepts, like “Shun Trading,” and “Adhere to Tradition.” This system arose primarily to satisfy the needs of organizing and managing territories. It became the code for warriors, governments, religions, and some private organizations. The other system is the Commercial Moral Syndrome and also is made of 15 principles like, “Shun Force,” and “Compete.” It came into being to support human activities around trade and the production of goods.


6. The Nature of Economies 

Jane Jacobs has spent years changing the way we think about economic life in general. Now, in The Nature of Economies, Jacobs proposes a radical notion that has breath-taking common sense: economies are governed by the same rules as nature itself. With the simplicity of an extremely wise and seasoned thinker, Jane Jacobs shows us that by looking to nature, we can develop economies that are both efficient and ecologically friendly.

The Nature of Economies is written in dialogue form: five intelligent friends discussing over coffee how economies work. The result is a wonderfully provocative, truly ground-breaking work by one of the great thinkers of our time. The dialogue form makes it “suited to expounding inquiry and developing argument.” If that sounds dull, it isn’t: this is an exciting book. Five smart and verbose friends debate Jacobs’ premise that economies are ruled by the same principles as nature. Jacobs believes “human beings exist wholly within nature as part of natural order in every respect.” We are not “interlopers” as some misanthropic ecologists believe nor innately superior, in charge because we can reason. The didactic discussion, Jacobs hopes, will also invite an open-minded reader to dispute or agree but at least consider.Jacobs’ debate is simplified for non-experts, some of the rhetoric only mildly academic. When definitions are tough or blurred, the Socratic form allows another character to summarize and paraphrase before moving on. Examples are clear, fun, and destabilizing: How might naturally occurring “voluntary birth control” be similar in its efficiency to farming and herding? Why, when a cat is given a house full of mice, will it eat three and then snooze, and how is human behaviour similar?

For Jacobs, creativity is crucial to problem solving and policy making. Creativity is not necessarily an ability to anticipate glitches – nature is too unpredictable for that – but to respond without simplistic regulations such as subsidies; to allow, instead, the organic generation of possible solutions.


Jane Jacobs’ Main Ideas

1.Cities as Ecosystems. 

Jacobs approached cities as living beings and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighborhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city – sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy – functions together synergistically, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. This understanding helps us discern how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.

2. Mixed-Use Development.

Jacobs advocated for “mixed-use” urban development – the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being “organic, spontaneous, and untidy,” and views the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.

3. Bottom-Up Community Planning.

Jacobs contested the traditional planning approach that relies on the judgment of outside experts, proposing that local expertise is better suited to guiding community development. She based her writing on empirical experience and observation, noting how the prescribed government policies for planning and development are usually inconsistent with the real-life functioning of city neighborhoods.

4. The Case for Higher Density

Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.

5. Local Economies.

By dissecting how cities and their economies emerge and grow, Jacobs cast new light on the nature of local economies. She contested the assumptions that cities are a product of agricultural advancement; that specialized, highly efficient economies fuel long-term growth; and that large, stable businesses are the best sources of innovation. Instead, she developed a model of local economic development based on adding new types of work to old, promoting small businesses, and supporting the creative impulses of urban entrepreneurs.


Jacobs was not a builder, but she was the architect of the modern city. Her ideas about density (a good thing) and modernist urban planning (a disaster) made her one of the few public critics of the post-war groupthink with regard to urban space. The well-ordered grid of a shiny metropolis was not for her; instead, Jacobs favored a haphazard juxtaposition of everything – industry, leisure time, ethnicity – that insured the vibrancy of the city. She was also a complicated figure in some ways, because of her lack of alliance in any political direction, and her renunciation of communism. Many of her approaches and beliefs would seem to align with a leftist vantage, and yet she refused the category. 

“With humility and common sense, she taught the world how to understand and value cities through direct observation, persistent questioning and discovery. Her faith in the wisdom of local citizens lives on in the civic battles in which she participated and her wisdom lives on in the writing of her nine seminal books.” – The Center for the Living City at Purchase College

Her legacy continues, as her books are taught in urban planning programs around the world. 

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