April 26, 2006

Jane Jacobs’ Legacy

Urban planning pioneer Jane Jacobs died yesterday just before her 90th birthday, leaving a legacy of planners inspired by her beliefs that designing for people is critically important for the vibrancy of communities.

Her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written at a time -- the early '60s -- when American society was falling in love with both the automobile and the promise of grand "urban renewal" projects. For many politicians of the era, bigger was better; but the result was the destruction of human-scale environments. Replacement large-scale, bold projects often ended up making communities less successful, not moreso (such as Boston's City Hall Plaza).

Jacobs put into words what many people believed instinctively, but couldn't explain: Highways through the heart of cities are bad and kill off neighborhoods. Mixing commercial and residential use in human-scale, distinctive neighborhoods works better than suburban sprawl.

"In the '50s, American cities were generally considered messy, undesirable things. Suburban life was considered the ideal. Jane Jacobs fought valiantly in defense of plain, old-fashioned, urban life," New Yorker architecture critic Paul Goldberger told the Los Angeles Times.

It was a radical notion in the post-war era, when emerging technologies and industrial prowess seemed to make everything possible, and spanking new suburban communities were seen to be vastly superior to older cities.

"At a time when both common and inspired wisdom called for bulldozing slums and opening up city space, Ms. Jacobs's prescription was ever more diversity, density and dynamism — in effect, to crowd people and activities together in a jumping, joyous urban jumble," the New York Times notes. "Indisputably, the book [Death and Life...] was 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."

Most of those who fight to save close-knit neighborhoods from big-box retailers, who work for pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, who battle for walkable communties, have been inspired by Jacobs' groundbreaking work.

1 comment:

  1. [...] ADDENDUM: Charles Swift offers reflections on Jacobs and Boston’s West End. John Keith offers links to Jacobsiana. Planning Liveable Communities praises Jacobs’ radical notion that “Mixing commercial and residential use in human-scale, distinctive neighborhoods works better than suburban sprawl.” [...]