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Jane Jacobs believed cities should be fun — and changed urban planning forever

Jane Jacobs had no formal training in urban planning, but she upended the field.
Ron Bull/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, she was a lone voice with no credentials speaking up against the most powerful ideas in urban planning. Fifty-five years later, on Jacobs's 100th birthday (honored in today's Google Doodle), urban dwellers are all living in her vision of the great American city.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a reaction to urban planning movements that wanted to clear entire city blocks and rebuild them, believing beautiful architecture was superior to crowded streets.

Jacobs argued this ignored everything that made cities great: the mixture of shops, offices, and housing that brought people together to live their lives. And her vision triumphed.

How Jacobs left her mark on urban planning

Jacobs criticized Lincoln Center in particular in some of her work.
Missy S

Jacobs's book transformed urban planning, throwing out the giant housing projects and sterile plazas that characterized the urban renewal movement in favor of a vision of a bustling, pedestrian-friendly city.

After World War II, urban renewal pushed 300,000 people, about half of them black, from their homes nationwide to build new high-rises, civic plazas, and office buildings. The buildings themselves in most cities were influenced by Le Corbusier, a famed Swiss architect who in the early 20th century had called for bulldozing downtowns and building in their place beautiful skyscrapers interspersed with parks.

Le Courbusier saw streets as crowded, noisy, smelly, and unpleasant — a "relic of the centuries, a dislocated organ that can no longer function." People-watching could be amusing, he acknowledged, but it could not compare with "the joy that architecture provokes."

Jacobs saw something different: a "sidewalk ballet" of people interacting with and depending on each other. When she visited Philadelphia with the city's chief planner, she once told the CBC's Eleanor Wachtel, the differences between Jacob's view and the urban planning establishment's were clear:

First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy.

"Will the city be any fun?" is one of the most important questions, she wrote in 1958 in Fortune magazine, that a planner can ask:

Where you find the liveliest downtown you will find one with the basic activities to support two shifts of foot traffic. By night it is just as busy as it is by day. New York’s Fifty-seventh Street is a good example: it works by night because of the apartments and residential hotels nearby; because of Carnegie Hall; because of the music, dance, and drama studios and special motion-picture theatres that have been generated by Carnegie Hall. It works by day because of small office buildings on the street and very large office buildings to the east and west.

Maybe the best example of the effect Jacobs had is in southwest Washington, DC. In 1946, 23,000 people, most of them black or Jewish, were forced from their homes in the city's southwest quadrant, and federal office buildings and high-rise apartments were built over the old neighborhoods.

Now that area is being redeveloped again. Alongside the older buildings, developers are adding mixed-use projects that brag about being places where residents can live, work, and play. It's a perfect example of the "two shifts" that Jacobs said characterized a vibrant neighborhood.

Jacobs also fought highway development — and now the federal government says she was right

If The Death and Life of Great American Cities was Jacobs's masterpiece, her climactic battle came a few years later. Robert Moses, the New York City planner, had called for an expressway that would bridge lower Manhattan, plowing through SoHo, the East Village, and the Lower East Side.

Jacobs was determined not to let this happen. She won. Her fight with Moses has been turned into an opera called A Marvelous Order, drawn from a Jacobs passage about the logic under the chaos of urban life: "Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city."

And no less than the nation's top transportation official now thinks that the US would be better off if highway development had hewed more closely to Jacobs's vision than to Moses's.

The federal government put up highways in poor urban areas in the 1950s and 1960s, isolating those neighborhoods from the rest of the city or sometimes tearing them down entirely. (Vox's Timothy B. Lee found some maps in December 2014 that demonstrate just how devastating the effects of the freeways were.)

One of those highways isolated the Charlotte, North Carolina, neighborhood where Anthony Foxx, now the federal transportation secretary, lived as a child. And in recent months, he's been arguing that building highways that way was a terrible mistake — one that he hopes federal policy can now reverse, he told the Washington Post in March.

"We built highways and railways and airports that literally carved up communities, leaving bulldozed homes, broken dreams, and, in fact, sapping many families of the one asset they had: their home," he said in a speech at the Center for American Progress.

One of his complaints about the neighborhood where he grew up, he told the Post, was that it wasn't walkable — one of the things Jacobs prized in urban life.

Jacobs's career is a triumph of a regular person over experts

Jacobs wasn't trained as an urban planner or an architect. She didn't even have a college degree. She'd trained as a journalist: Her first job was the evening shift at the local morning newspaper in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

But Jacob's lack of traditional expertise worked in her favor. Her theory of how cities worked was based on how she saw people behave, rather than how architects hoped they would behave. (She didn't mince words, either: In 1958, she called these experts "egocentric children, playing with pretty blocks and shouting "See what I made!")

Jacobs wanted cities filled with paths for pedestrians rather than broad streets for cars. The most important thing about urban planning, she thought, was how people would live in a city — not how visionaries thought she should live.

She summed up her motivating principles in 1980, in a debate with a developer who quoted visionary city planner Daniel Burnham: "Make no little plans, for they have no magic to stir men's blood."

"Funny, big plans never stirred women's blood," Jacobs responded, as Roberta Brandes Gratz recounted in CityLab in 2011. "Women have always been willing to consider little plans."

Of course, big, inspirational plans might have put a highway through SoHo, but they also created Central Park. And Jacobs's legacy, similarly, isn't all positive. Her love for old buildings can turn into a fetishization of historic preservation that stops new construction to help keep down housing prices. A belief that the community should get a say in development can turn into NIMBYism that protects existing residents' rights by barring newcomers.

But compared to the high-rise housing projects and sterile plazas of the 1950s and 1960s, Jacobs's vision of a city built around people and everyday life is far more inviting. It's no surprise that planners are still trying to figure out how to build and preserve the urban world she praised.

If you're interested in more, Curbed has a wonderful collection of articles celebrating Jacobs's life and legacy on her 100th birthday.

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