"The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations" 

Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities

Who was Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006), neighborhood organizer, community activist, urban theorist and mother, is today lauded for challenging traditional planning theories and practices and for having a keen understanding of what makes an exciting and vital city.  The revolutionary ideas in her 1961 classic treatise, Death and Life of Great American Cities, were based on her observations of city life from her apartment above a candy store on Hudson Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village and her immersion out in the city streets.  She was highly critical of modern urban planning and more specifically, urban renewal practices of the 1950s that cleared out, in one stroke, whole vibrant neighborhoods considered blighted by city planners and developers.  She eschewed city planners who sat with maps in a room and instead urged people to know the true ecology of cities by going out into urban spaces to experience them.  We have Jane Jacobs to thank for saving Greenwich Village, a neighborhood targeted by New York powerbroker, Robert Moses for construction of the Lower Manhattan Expressway.  Thanks to the activism of neighbors and supporters, the city rejected the proposal for the highway in 1964. 

Based on her acute observations on what she described as the “street ballet” of city life, she promoted these main ideas for building thriving cities:

·        Mixed Use Development: The best urban neighborhoods are those zoned for mixed use where people can live, work, and play in the same space.  Lively neighborhoods with homes, bars, stores, restaurants, theaters, create opportunities for active streets and sidewalks throughout the day and night. 

·        High Density Neighborhoods:  The more crowded and narrow the streets of a neighborhood, the more opportunities for social interaction and public surveillance of the streets.  Indeed, Jane Jacobs observed that the higher the density of a neighborhood, the safer the neighborhood tends to be due to more “eyes on the street”.

·        Pedestrian and Bicycle Centered Cities:  Jane Jacobs opposed the retrofitting of cities for cars and decried the building of highways that cut off the fibers of vibrant city life.  Cities should be places where people navigate around on foot, on bikes and on buses, subways and other forms of public transportation.  She believed in the importance of active streets and sidewalks as the “vital organs” of a city.

·        Bottom-up Planning: Jane Jacobs challenged the notion of the “expert”, the professionally trained planner.  She offered a populist call for neighborhood control of urban planning.  According to Jacobs, those who are the real “experts” in what is best for a city neighborhood are those who live and work and love there.

For a deeper understanding of the life and ideas of Jane Jacobs, one can read these linked online articles on her biography and her legacy.  Please also turn to the "Resources" section for suggestions of further in-depth readings.

Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because and only when, they are created by everybody.”
— Jane Jacobs, Death and Life of Great American Cities