Jane Jacobs wrote one of the most influential urban affairs books of the twentieth century.
“Death and Life of Great American Cities” — published in 1961 — has become a talisman, cited by many and sundry to advance their views and proposals. Jacobs, who died in 2006, is an icon of the field, and her views have become “the common wisdom of our time,” says Paul Goldberger, a prominent architecture critic.
As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “Death and Life,” it’s surely time now to think freshly and skeptically about her ideas. We don’t need more acolytes of Jane Jacobs; we need people who will think as hard and as well as she did about “the kind of problem a city is.”
The very first paragraph of “Death and Life” promises “an attack on the principles and aims that have shaped modern orthodox city planning and rebuilding.” At mid-century, that orthodoxy included urban renewal and highway construction, and it was carried out through such elements as big projects, separation of uses, and “blight” designations followed by clearance. Jacobs’ writing and her activism in New York City’s Greenwich Village contributed immensely to the unraveling —but not the disappearance — of that approach. The book bristles with pointed criticisms and sharp analyses that aim to burst the modernist orthodoxy.
It’s a wonderful book, strongly written, and well-worth reading today.
More people should read the book before they cite Jacobs as an ally for their projects. One recent writer confessed to relying on second- and third-hand sources and to referencing “Death and Life” in support of “whatever I was working on.” Upon actually reading the book, she concluded that the “New Urbanism” movement’s implied claim to Jacobs’ approval is unwarranted.
We now need studies that follow Jacobs’ advice: closely observed, fearless studies of the way things do or don’t function on the ground in big cities and also in towns, suburbs and little cities, and regions.
To read the whole column— “Emerging Issues: Wrestling with Jane Jacobs,” go to the icon for the June 21 issue of Nation’s Cities Weekly on the NLC homepage, www.nlc.org.