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Jane in Today's City

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How Jane Jacobs has changed architecture and urban planning

Jane Jacobs in Washington Square.
Jane Jacobs in Washington Square.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

The phrase New Airport City doesn’t conjure images of quaint urban neighborhoods and tightly-knit communities. But when David Green, a principal and urban designer at the global architecture firm Perkins + Will, was tasked last fall with devising a massive, 1,700-acre development for Istanbul, a gleaming new modern neighborhood near the city’s under-construction Istanbul New Airport, he knew where to turn for inspiration.

"We’re doing work in Istanbul to try and get the municipality to rethink how they’re operating," says Green. "They’re building and redeveloping, and in one case, lost their equivalent of the Lower East Side. It didn’t dawn on me at the start, but I really should have seen if there were Turkish translations of The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

Green, like many professional urban planners, doesn’t view Jane Jacobs as one among a number of great writers or influential thinkers. She’s the influence, the foundation of modern city planning. Her books are more sacred tablets than textbooks, which makes evaluating her legacy for modern urban planners on what would be her 100th birthday a tricky thing. When your work is a standard, it opens itself up to faithful covers, intriguing remixes, and tragic reinterpretations.

This "What Would Jane Jacobs Do?" t-shirt is sold in Toronto.
This "What Would Jane Jacobs Do?" t-shirt is sold in Toronto.
Tanja-Tiziana

"Jacobs is like the Constitution and the Bible," says Green. "She can be used by various people for various things, depending on what people want her to say."

It’s clear Jacobs’s ideas have made an incomparable impact on urban planning. Her push for organic urban development and community involvement stood in stark contrast to large-scale, top-down projects, such as highway construction and urban renewal, that actually left areas worse off than they were before. Her landmark work, Death and Life, arose as a critique of the ideas of planners such as New York master builder Robert Moses, who almost single-handedly shaped city construction policy.

"Community engagement used to be merely a formal requirement," says Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute. "Today, planning really starts with asking the community what they want, what they care about, and what’s important to them. Bottom-up planning is a direct result of her work and influence. The best projects, and most successful from an economic point of view, start with the developers listening to what the community wants. Savvy developers study demographics the way stockbrokers study the market. Success in the future is about getting in front of the inevitable."

Jane Jacobs at a demonstration against the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.
Jane Jacobs at a demonstration against the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

But Jacobs’s victory may have been too complete for some.

"It led to more community involvement, which is basically a good thing," says Max Page, a professor of architecture and history at the University of Massachusetts and editor of the book Reconsidering Jane Jacobs. "But we have fled from big projects. We fled Moses in favor of Jane Jacobs. And one of the biggest weaknesses of that shift is that in some ways, it’s kept us from making big public investments in transportation and infrastructure."

Jacobs pressed and promoted her beliefs at a time when the battle lines were simpler: the "scientific," modern planning principles of someone like Moses, versus Jacobs’s own view of organic growth. Where Jacobs fought against the planned physical destruction of parts of the city, most community activists today battle the more gradual, less-planned change of gentrification. Jacobs herself also simplified the debates of urban planning in some respects, leaving out race and other factors that define the urban fabric.

Jane Jacobs attending a boycott at P.S. 41 in New York City in February 1964.
Jane Jacobs attending a boycott at P.S. 41 in New York City in February 1964.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

In the years since the publication of Death and Life, Jacobs’s insights have been oversimplified, misunderstood, or misused in the pursuit of projects she likely wouldn’t have supported. Think new urbanist projects that take Jacobs’s beliefs in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods and try to shoehorn them into suburban lifestyle centers without context or history. It’s the difference between an organic, bustling neighborhood or main street and a fantasy such as Disney’s Celebration, Florida.

"A smart, subtle book was turned into a recipe book," says Page. "It’s a great piece of writing, but people have this idea that there’s a key, core parts of making a healthy city. I don’t need to read it, I just need to know her recipe. It’s too easy to misuse Jane Jacobs."

Those who try to create from-scratch developments using Jacobs’s work as a rulebook miss a fundamental point about the organic nature of the type of neighborhood she admired.

"In Jane’s neighborhoods, there’s a messiness, a grittiness, and disorganization," says Green. "I can’t tell you the number of places that used the writing of Jacobs to create gated, separated communities. It’s always people defaulting to the idea of safety and security. That’s the fundamental opposite of what she said. Instead of getting safety through homogeneity, you get safety and comfort through a significant presence of varied people."

While Jacobs’s love of a certain model of urban living, spelled out most popularly in Death and Life, has become a standard, it’s one that’s more than a half-century old, and it crystallized before massive shifts in the economy altered our cities. The story of the last few decades of urban planning includes the rise of cities as dominant international economic forces, income stratification, a return to urban centers in North America, and the fraying of the social safety net. In many ways, her later books, such as Cities and the Wealth of Nations and Dark Age Ahead, which discuss macroeconomic forces and the city’s role in national and international trade, more closely predicted, and align, with today’s urban reality.

Jane Jacobs demonstration against in the demolition of Penn Station in May 1963.
Jane Jacobs demonstrating against in the demolition of Penn Station in May 1963.
Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

"When she writes Death and Life in 1961, it’s during a time in New York when, relative to today, there’s strong unions and investment in public transportation," says Page. "She didn’t realize many of them would be rolled back, that the national and world economy would change. Think about the Fight for 15; in her day, the minimum wage was worth so much more than it is today. She assumed a level of public investment that we don’t have anymore."

As Green sees it, many of the changes affecting cities are market forces, not design issues. Contemporary planners and developers applying Jacobs’s design ideas to the problem may be missing the mark. Maintaining expensive brownstones instead of making way for more affordable housing may maintain character at the expense of diversity.

"This is why I think gentrification is a terrible word," he says. "It has nothing to do with how cities are designed. Most of it has to do with market variation. You don’t need to change the structure of the East Village today, you need to put in place policies that obtain local businesses and income diversity."

Many public planners and urban thinkers believe Jacobs, were she alive and working today, would be fighting to stem the tide of gentrification and redirect the market forces eroding traditional neighborhoods. Page points to projects such as the work of Theaster Gates, whose art-oriented Rebuild Foundation has helped build up underserved Chicago neighborhoods, or Rick Lowe’s Row Houses in Houston, as potential examples of Jacobs-style urban development that respond to the modern context. Both are examples of what he calls "social justice urbanism," which solidify poor neighborhoods, embrace artists and the wealthy, and add to the stock of affordable housing.

Jane Jacobs in Toronto.
Jane Jacobs in Toronto.
Frank Lennon/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Page actually isn’t sure Jacobs would like these ideas. But she would like that these ideas exist. She wouldn’t want to inspire followers—the approach so many architects and planners have taken to her work—she’d want to inspire critical thinkers.

While writing an article for Metropolis in 2005 about a Berlin housing project, Page decided to call up Jacobs, then in her late 80s and living in Toronto, to see what she thought. To his surprise, she answered and began analyzing the development with him, happy to discuss one of her passions.

But as abruptly as it started, the conversation ended. Page remembers Jacobs telling him that she’d never been to Berlin, so it didn’t really make sense for her to comment since she didn’t truly know the place. She then hung up.

"If you think about it, it fits so well with the opening inscription of Death and Life," says Page. "There are no illustrations. If you want to see the city, go out and see it. Talk about a conversation going along perfectly with the sacred text."

Editor: Sara Polsky

Read more:
An Illustrated Guide to Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and the Battle Over LOMEX
Jane Up North
Imagining Jane Jacobs
Quiz: What Would Jane Jacobs Think of Your Neighborhood?