Jane Jacobs Defends Urbanism in 1960s New York City Planning

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Jane Jacobs, 1961.

Jane Jacobs, in this 1962 appearance at a Books and Authors Luncheon, explains her current role as a community leader in the fight against what she views as the excesses and excrescences of the arrogant Modernist redesign of city neighborhoods.

Jacobs recounts how as a journalist working for an architectural magazine she enthusiastically reported on vast "clearances" of so-called slums in the name of urban renewal. But when she revisited these sites after the project's completion, she was disturbed to find that they did not look or function in the way their builders had promised. She asked the architects where, for example, were all the "happy promenaders"? They told her, "People are stupid. They don't do what they're supposed to do."

Around this same time, a settlement worker in East Harlem, concerned about plans to radically redesign that neighborhood, began taking her on walking tours, where she listened to residents talk about what was needed and not needed, to improve their situation. This led her to realize that planners do not investigate "what makes the very intricate order of the city," a quality she calls Urbanism.

This is not some vague quality like "personality," she argues, but can be investigated and quantified in order to determine what changes are necessary. Yet planners, bound by the higher demands of theory, consistently refuse to do this. The citizens themselves must agitate, she argues, since "nothing is more inert than a planning office." Immediately after finishing her book on the subject she was called upon to put her ideas into practice when a similar urban renewal project was proposed for her own neighborhood, the West Village. She briefly describes how the community forced the government to back down and debunks the notion put forward by her opponents that the book was cobbled together on short notice to sway public opinion.  

Jacobs was born in 1916. She began her writing career as a freelance journalist and had no formal training in architecture or urban planning when she wrote her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). This "outsider's approach" to what had previously been considered a subject only fit to be pronounced upon by disciples of Le Corbusier and the like infuriated the supporters of the status quo but opened a floodgate of community activism that survives to this day. Indeed, The New York Times in its obituary of Jacobs, called the book:

…as radically challenging to conventional thinking as Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, which helped engender the environmental movement, would be the next year, and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which deeply affected perceptions of relations between the sexes, would be in 1963.

On another level, The Times also goes on to compare the book with those by Ralph Nader, Paul Goodman, and Malcolm X. So commonplace now are some of Jacobs's proposals that it is hard to imagine the outrage and controversy they engendered.

Lewis Mumford, the architecture critic for The New Yorker, dismissed her suggestions, writing:

Like a construction gang bulldozing a site clean of all habitations, good or bad, she bulldozes out of existence every desirable innovation in urban planning during the last century, and every competing idea, without even a pretense of critical evaluation. 

What Jacobs called for was local input, diversity of class, diversity of building stock, and perhaps most controversially, a greater population density. As the website Project For Public Spaces argues:

Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.

All this flew in the face of urban theory at the time, which called for empty squares, soaring towers, and an implicit disregard for people living their ordinary lives in favor of a grand architectural statement. Much of this ethos was embodied by Robert Moses, the master builder of New York, who did battle with Jacobs on numerous occasions.  Her impressions, as recounted in a late interview with James Howard Kunstler, illustrate the fundamental gulf separating the two:

…I saw him only once, at a hearing about the road through Washington Square, which was to be an entrance ramp to the Lower Manhattan expressway. He was there briefly to speak his piece. But nobody was told that at the time. None of us had spoken yet because they always had the officials speak first and then they would go away and they wouldn’t listen to the people. Anyway, he stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this and I guess he could already see that his plan was in danger. Because he was saying "There is nobody against this — NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of, a bunch of MOTHERS! And then he stomped out.

In 1968, fearful that her sons would be drafted and forced to fight in the Vietnam War, which she opposed, Jacobs and her family moved to Canada. In Toronto, she continued to oppose large-scale "improvements" to her adopted city, notably the Spadina Expressway. She published books on other subjects as well, including Quebec separatism, the connection between morality and work, and the decline of North American civilization. None of these works, though, had the impact of her first. Not only had it caught the rising tide of 1960s protest, but it  survived to become required reading in today's schools of architecture, the very profession that derided its initial appearance.

Jacobs died in 2006, at the age of 89.


Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.