Tuesday, April 25, 2006
One of the most popular and influential writers on urban life and policy, Jane Jacobs, died today in Toronto at age 89. (Here's the New York Times' article.) She was one of a rare breed: the non-academician who –- perhaps by her lack of being tied to an academician’s method –- writes successfully to change the minds and hearts of America.
When Jacobs in 1961 wrote her most famous work, “Death and Life of Great American Cities,” the traditional American distrust of cities had taken on new and ominous turns. Across the nation, urban neighborhoods were being torn down for freeways to speed suburbanites to and from their jobs. Both theorists and officials such as New York’s Robert Moses were planning and building huge new city projects that disdained the old urban grid for grandiose plazas and monoliths, such as those of Boston and Albany. And the city was rapidly descending in social status as a place only for the poor and for ethnic ghettos.
Jacobs played a large role in turning this thinking around. She may not have held many degrees or followed urban theories, but her bedrock arguments had tremendous power. Great cities were not created by enormous construction projects, she argued, but by the variety, spontaneity, and quirkiness of the human urban experience. Density and the messiness that it engenders are what make urban life thrilling and enriching. The details of the corner grocer's display and the flower pots on a tenement landing matter as much as a thousand tons of concrete. Urban neighborhoods, including ethnically identifiable ones, are not embarrassments but unique centers of joy and pride and creativity.
These were radical ideas in the 1960s. Thanks in large part to Jane Jacobs, these ideas are now part of mainstream theory and, increasingly, part of our law.