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Writer-urbanist Jane Jacobs and her tryst with urban design and American cities

The American-Canadian writer-activist Jane Jacobs is known for her substantial penmanship devoted to cities, people, and community-driven urban design.

by Jincy IypePublished on : May 04, 2020

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Jane Jacobs (May 4, 1916 – April 25, 2006), best known for authoring books in the field of urban design and planning mostly centered around American cities, is a revered figure in the global urban design collective. The American-Canadian journalist, activist, self-taught writer and urbanist spewed forth writings that catered to fresher, community-based urban planning policies. Her most celebrated discourse, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, among other writings, elaborated these ideals and explored how cities function, evolve, fail or succeed.

Jacobs was criticised for having strong opinions in a then, heavily male dominated industry, often with gender-specific insults to diminish her credibility as a writer. Her works are now considered canonical, and also form curriculum in urban design and architecture schools across the world - an exceptional feat, as she did not possess any training or college degree in urban planning. “This is both a gloomy and a hopeful book,” is how she describes The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which is followed by other writings such as The Economy of Cities, Cities and the Wealth of Nations and Systems of Survival, among numerous speeches and interviews.

Cover of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs | Jane Jacobs | STIRworld
Cover of the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Jacobs believed and rallied for the importance of locals having a major say in how their own neighbourhoods should look like and function, what areas must be looked after and why, how an urban fabric can improve as a community, and become more people centric. Today, on her 104th birth anniversary, STIR celebrates the urbanist, her visionary writings and her spirited life that has influenced decades of urban design policies, teachings and ideas.

“There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

Jacobs chronicled lengthily about sidewalks and parks’ culture, about cities flourishing with local economies and mixed-use buildings, and viewed cities as integrated systems. Jacobs is also considered one of the founders of the New Urbanist movement that originated in the United States in the 80s. This urban planning and design movement sought to reduce dependence on cars in an urban setting, as she mentions in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Traffic congestion is caused by vehicles, not by people in themselves”. She also encouraged the design of ‘walkable’ neighbourhoods – a neighbourhood with a ‘main street’, flanked by a park and a shopping district, set within a gridded street system – a movement she brazenly organised at length in New York and Toronto, where she later lived.

Traffic in Central Park, New York City, United States (representative image) | Jane Jacobs | STIRworld
Traffic in Central Park, New York City, United States (representative image) Image Credit: Photo by John Arano on Unsplash

Jacobs' life’s works were an inquiry into the ecosystem of a modern city. She viewed a city’s elements not just independently, but as parts of a cohesive system, which can take on varied personalities depending on the people who inhabited them. She was also an advocate for the preservation or adaptive reuse of old buildings, rather than erasing them completely.

Jacobs with The Death and Life of Great American Cities doesn’t hold back -  “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding”. An excerpt from the book follows –

“A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, our of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighbourhoods always do, must have three main qualities:

First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.

Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.”

Jane Jacobs believed that sidewalks were a crucial element of a city – representative image | Jane Jacobs | STIRworld
Jane Jacobs believed that sidewalks were a crucial element of a city – representative image Image Credit: Photo by KAZEM HUSSEIN on Unsplash

“The bedrock attribute of a successful city district is that a person must feel personally safe and secure on the street among all these strangers.”

Jacobs was actively seen rallying and speaking against master builder Robert Moses’s plans to raze down existing buildings in Greenwich Village (where she also lived) and erect high risers in their place. She was instrumental in organising efforts to shield neighbourhoods from ‘urban renewal’, such as the cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would wipe out SoHo, Chinatown and Little Italy, Manhattan and would have led to displacement of much housing and businesses in Washington Square Park. In one such public activism and demonstration against Moses’s policies, she was also held behind the bars. After this arrest, her family moved to Toronto in 1968 and received Canadian citizenship as well. Here too, Jacobs was involved in rebuilding neighbourhoods and stopping the building of an expressway, and lobbied for a more community centric urban design, bringing people to the streets and questioning existing urban policies of design.

  • A street in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York, NY, USA | Jane Jacobs | STIRworld
    A street in Chinatown, Manhattan, New York, NY, USA Image Credit: Photo by Lerone Pieters on Unsplash
  • Washington Square Park from the 9th floor of NYU's Kimmel Center, on the south side of the park | Jane Jacobs | STIRworld
    Washington Square Park from the 9th floor of NYU's Kimmel Center, on the south side of the park Image Credit: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Vibrant streets and parks, people-centric design, ‘eyes on the street’, mixed-use buildings, adaptive re-use of old structures, neighbourhood and transit and planned density are all accepted as mainstream ideas in urban design planning policies today, and are ideals taught in architecture schools for students to learn and practise in the future. But these were considered ground-breaking when Jane Jacobs introduced them many, many years ago. She learned and practised by observation, and simply put it in writing, citing her opinion about urbanism, economies and social issues.

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