Monday, May 01, 2006

Jane Jacobs


Self-taught, influential urban theorist Jane Jacobs passed away last Tuesday, April 25, in Toronto. She was born Jane Butzner on this day in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

It should perhaps be no surprise that two of the most influential urban theorists of the 20th century -- William H. Whyte and Jane Jacobs -- should have begun their professional lives as journalists: their conclusions are based on living observations, from the street-curbs and within the bustle of neighborhood commerce, of the components of urban vitality.

Jane Butzner started as an assistant to the women's page editor at the Scranton Tribune, but left her hometown for New York City in the middle of the Depression, eking out a living as a freelance writer for the New York Herald Tribune and Vogue while working at a metals trade paper and in the Office of War Information. After marrying architect Robert Jacobs, she joined the staff of Architectural Forum, which became a testing ground for her brewing ideas on cities.

She published her ground-breaking critique of 1960s-style "urban renewal," The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961; in it, she sought to shatter the "scientific" self-importance of the urban planning set with the observation that livable cities are organic in their evolution -- authentic to themselves and not cut from a drawing-board pattern, messy with "mixed uses" and densely packed with people rubbing elbows -- and that they thrive on the spontaneity and market intelligence which results from architectural, economic and human diversity. The book was a radical frontal assault on the collaborations between public works chieftains and real estate developers who proposed to erase vibrant neighborhoods and replace them with concrete office parks or shopping malls in the name of "urban redevelopment" (or, more stridently, in the name of "slum clearance").

In 1962, consistent with her concerns about whether cities should be built for people or for cars, she chaired the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which successfully foiled Robert Moses' plan to cleave Manhattan neighborhoods with an elevated highway, and in 1968, she was arrested during a demonstration against a revived version of Moses' plan. Shortly thereafter, Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto (in order to keep her sons out of the Vietnam draft), where again she became actively involved in campaigns against "urban renewal" and highway building, participating in the protest against the building of the Spadina Highway.

In subsequent books (The Economy of Cities, 1969, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, 1984, and The Nature of Economies, 2000), Jacobs focused on city economies and their development, arguing ultimately that the disconnected economies of nation-states were inherently less stable and durable than those of the interwoven city, while her Systems of Survival (1992) was a platonic dialogue between two systems of political and economic morality -- a collaborative, open and productive "commercial moral syndrome" and a hierarchical, accretative and disenfranchising "guardian moral syndrome." She also authored a children's book and a book on Quebecois separatism, The Question of Separation (1980). By the end of her life she had become an elder statesperson of the anti-suburban sprawl movement, but at times her views have been twisted around to support the theories of New Urbanists and their planned suburban developments.

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