Women’s History Month: Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a visionary tour de force.

Jane Jacobs may no longer be alive, but her writing and ideas sure are.

Writing in feisty yet eloquent prose, Jacobs delivered a visionary tour de force in her debut book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 

Some have called the book the most influential work ever on urban design, and, while I am not well versed in the field, I can see why it has received that designation. 

Jacobs brings the vision hard in this staunch critique of urban renewal policies and even stronger call for cities that are diverse, of mixed-housing stock, and have the capacity for organic change and continual renewal. 

Jacobs cites examples from cities throughout the country to buttress her points. She writes extensively and with general approbation about Boston’s North End neighborhood, for example, and also refers a number of times to Chicago’s Back of the Yards community. 

Still, her primary focus is on New York, where she lived until the late 60s, when she moved to Toronto. 

Jacobs’ passion for the city is obvious throughout the book’s 450 pages.  One feels this both in her explanation of city’s possibilities for a dynamic and intimate community unlike those in more rural settings, and in her description of what she sees as the wrongheadedness of urban renewal policies implemented by master planner Robert Moses in New York. 

At base, Jacobs maintains that cities should be lived and administered on a local and livable scale.  While she does advocate selective intervention in the physical landscape-at one point late in the work, she talks about the utility of a grid with some differently shaped streets-she believes that these changes should be targeted, thoughtful and the result of meaningful input from the citizens who live there. 

In some ways, Jacobs’ ideal reminded me of how the late Richard J. Daley governed the parts of Chicago on which he doled out favors during his 21-year tenure as the city’s leader.  Daley had a supreme understanding that politics was local, and thus made sure that city services and jobs flowed to the areas of staunchest support. 

The Death and Life is a bit sparse on data, and in part that was because the goals Jacobs articulated had not yet come into existence.  It may not always be easy to read, but it’s always entertaining and provocative.  I hope you give it the time it deserves.


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