Emerging Issues: Wrestling with Jane Jacobs

June 21, 2010

by Bill Barnes

Jane Jacobs wrote one of the most influential urban affairs books of the 20th century.

"Death and Life of Great American Cities" - published in 1961 and still in print today - 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 new books explore her ideas and narrate her activities.

Jacobs' views have become "the common wisdom of our time," says Paul Goldberger, a prominent architecture critic.

American cities have changed dramatically since 1961. As we approach the 50th anniversary of the publication of "Death and Life," it's surely time now to celebrate her accomplishments and also to think freshly about her ideas, about what we assume is actually going on in cities, and about what we believe is correct and desirable about cities.

Jacobs' views have become, often unacknowledged, part of the regular vocabulary of planning and urban development. Take, for example, the idea that a street with storefronts and residences and lots of pedestrians is safer than a deserted one because there are people around to watch over it. Or, the idea that mixing uses in dense, complex places is preferable to isolating dwellings from shops and parks from workplaces. Or, the notion that development should evolve from existing uses, rather than by governmentally planned, wholesale clearance and new construction. All of those and more can be found in "Death and Life."

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. Goldberger complained that Jacobs' ideas are being used to support purposes "deeply inconsistent with her values."

Since 1961, cities have changed and the conventional wisdom has changed. How, then, to think anew about ideas that are so widely and implicitly shared?

In "Death and Life," Jacobs herself provided useful recommendations.

First, she warned her readers against unexamined, preconceived notions, including her own vigorously argued ideas. She encouraged readers to "constantly and skeptically test what I say against [their] own knowledge."

Second, she urged people who are interested in city life to think inductively and "look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether threads of principle emerge among them." The page after the table of contents in "Death and Life" announces this approach to the reader. It is labeled "Illustrations." (The book has no illustrations. It also has no charts or graphs or tables of statistics.) The page declares: "For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see."

Third, Jacobs cautioned against over-generalization. She said that we should know which thing we're talking about. That is, she knew that "Death and Life" is "concentrated on great [that is, very big] cities, and on their inner areas." Thus, she also knew what she wasn't talking about: "I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which are still suburban. Towns, suburbs and even little cities are totally different organisms from great cities."

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. We don't need 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."

Details: You can comment about this column at the NLC Blog, CitiesSpeak.org. A link is on the NLC webpage, www.nlc.org.

Next time: the Jane Jacobs versus Robert Moses debate still rages.

Bill Barnes (barnes@nlc.org) is the director for emerging issues at NLC.

To view previous columns, visit the Emerging Issues webpage at www.nlc.org (in the menu for "About cities").