The Roots of Jane Jacobs’ Urban Vision

by on June 2, 2016

The 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ birth has brought renewed accolades for the acclaimed author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs’ alternative vision for urban America became today’s prevailing wisdom on cities, housing, traffic, open space, urban sprawl and other issues.

But a common myth about Jacobs is that she was a West Village housewife whose reliance on personal observations of local street life prevailed against the planning establishment and New York City’s powerful Robert Moses. The truth is quite different. As Peter Laurence recounts in his masterful new book, Becoming Jane Jacobs, Jacobs was actually among the leading voices on urban America prior to the 1961 publication of her landmark book.

Laurence’s book is an enormous contribution both to our understanding of Jacobs and more importantly to the 1950’s era that shaped both Jacobs’ perceptions and the future of urban and suburban America. I will avoid any suspense by saying at the outset that it is a must read for anyone working to improve the quality of life in cities today.

How Jacobs Formed Her Views

Starting in 1952 and continuing through the 1961 publication of her master work, Jane Jacobs offered a cutting edge and truly visionary analysis of cities and suburbs for Architecture Forum. But because she lacked planning credentials and many of her landmark articles had no byline, she did not get broader public credit (that she was a woman in the incredibly male-dominated architecture and planning fields also contributed to this).

Urban architecture in the United States in the 1950’s was in thrall to the French architect Le Corbusier, whose 1920’s vision of tall towers with surrounding greenery dominated American urban redevelopment plans. While Jacobs soon recognized that these towers sucked the vitality out of cities and eliminated street life, the planning and architecture professions were too swayed by Le Corbusier’s theory to care whether its implementation negatively impacted people.

When Jacobs began, critics of architecture projects faced libel suits if they were too negative in their public comments. Architecture Forum was the leading publication willing to challenge the status quo, and the opinionated Jacobs was a perfect fit.

One of the most important points that Laurence establishes is that Jacobs’ did not start as an enemy of large scale urban redevelopment.  In fact, she understood that cities faced death without a new strategy to compete with the emerging suburbs. Jacobs was very much open to some of the major urban renewal efforts she would later rail against, reflecting her willingness to give a wide spectrum of ideas a chance to work.

Jacobs also recognized years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that urban sprawl would have devastating environmental impacts. She saw the negative impacts on cities of the American love of the automobile, and many of her mid-1950’s warnings proved remarkably prophetic.

A Project by Project Critique

Jacobs was on the front lines grappling with the complex issues of urban regeneration. Her position at Architecture Forum  enabled her to analyze each of the major urban redevelopment projects spreading across America. These projects vastly expanded after a 1954 Supreme Court ruling that enabled a finding of “blight” to be made on virtually every urban block in the United States. Suddenly in mid-50’s America, the coast was clear for the unfettered demolition of housing and mass displacement of tenants across the country.

Laurence retrieves Jacobs’ articles for us and enables  us to trace how she arrived at her critique of urban redevelopment projects.  We join Jacobs as she advances through her learning curve, and we accompany her recognition of the huge gap between what “visionary” modern redevelopment promised and the displacement, social isolation and wrecked lives it too often delivered.

Nowhere was this gap between theory and reality more evident than in the construction of massive new public housing towers. Jacobs and others predicted that they would promote segregation and poverty, and were proved right.

Beyond its new insights into Jane Jacobs, this is also a great book about 1950’s and mid-60’s America. The arrogance and disconnection from public input that Laurence portrays among planners and architects pushing destructive redevelopment themes were paralleled by the planners and architects of the Vietnam War. It is no coincidence that Jane Jacobs was a strong opponent of both.

Laurence has created an almost indispensable companion to The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I was a big admirer of Jane Jacobs before reading this book and came away even more impressed by her intellectual integrity and brilliant vision. She was over two decades ahead of her time in understanding how to create livable cities.

Becoming Jane Jacobs is ideal for book groups addressing urban themes, and should become a staple of college urban studies classes. If you relish the memories of the excitement you felt upon originally reading Jacobs’ master work, Becoming Jane Jacobs will return you to those days.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron. He discusses how Jane Jacobs’ focus on preservation has been misused to promote gentrification in The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco,

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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