Jane Jacobs

Critic of the modernist approach to urban planning who believed that cities were places for people

Saturday 03 June 2006 00:00

Jane Butzner, writer, philosopher and activist: born Scranton, Pennsylvania 4 May 1916; married 1944 Robert Hyde Jacobs (died 1996; two sons, one daughter); died Toronto, Ontario 25 April 2006.

Jane Jacobs was the first and remains much the best-known critic of the comprehensive modernist approach to urban planning after 1945. Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), was a trenchantly written and sustained assault on what she saw happening to American cities during the 1950s. It expressed misgivings that were emerging throughout the West and was eventually translated into six languages, selling over a quarter of a million copies.

Jacobs objected to what she labelled the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful", an amalgam of all the principal planning theories of the time, which she saw as being utterly at odds with urban realities, and leading to the destruction of the city as a living community.

Her most telling fire was directed at the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier's concept of the "Radiant City" which underpinned the ambitious urban renewal policies being pursued in American cities at the time. This futurist vision insisted on the absolute segregation of the city's different activities into separate zones, linked (though also physically isolated) by super-highways set in wide parkland landscaping. The colossal physical destruction that was necessary to implement this vision tore apart the traditional multi-activity street and densely populated neighbourhood that Jacobs saw as the bedrock of urban living.

It also accelerated the dispersal of former dense and diverse urban communities into distant and sterile residential suburbs. For this, she blamed the English reformer Ebenezer Howard's vision of the "Garden City" which, in her view, fostered the romantic belief that the problems of urban living could only be solved by escape to a lower-density, semi-rural existence.

This devastating critique grew largely outside the specialist realms of architecture and urban planning. Jane Butzner was born in 1916 into a middle-class Jewish family in the mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She was an undistinguished high-school student but dabbled in journalism before moving in 1934 to join her older sister Betty in New York City.

During the Depression the sisters scraped a living, taking what jobs they could and surviving at times on Pablum baby food, bananas and milk. Jane's often fruitless searches for work took her to different parts of the city. In this way she found and instantly fell in love with Greenwich Village, persuading her sister that this was where they should live. At the time this densely populated and diverse downtown neighbourhood was an established haunt for Bohemian intellectuals but was still far from the chic, upmarket address of today. Throughout her life it provided the foundation of her thinking about cities.

Jane Butzner worked in various jobs for several years but gradually broke into journalism, selling occasional articles. Many drew on her explorations of New York and she began to establish a reputation as a commentator on urban themes. During the Second World War she became a feature writer for the Office of War Information, while there meeting and in 1944 marrying Robert Hyde Jacobs, an architect. They had two sons and one daughter and lived together until his death in 1998. Jane's experiences as a young mother strengthened her belief in the virtues of close downtown neighbourhoods such as Greenwich.

During the early post-war years her journalism increasingly focused on architecture and planning, especially after she joined the magazine Architectural Forum in 1952. She also became concerned about the way McCarthyism was suppressing dissent just as city business and professional élites were promoting ever more ambitious and destructive programmes of urban renewal. This and her growing reputation as a commentator, especially following her first book, drew her increasingly into activism.

Nineteen sixty-two found her chair of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, locked in bitter confrontation with New York's powerful and ruthless urban renewal and highways bureaucrat Robert Moses. For the first time ever, Moses was thwarted, though Jacobs had to return to the struggle (and be arrested for her efforts) in 1968 when the plan was revived.

Yet, if she won this battle, another of the radical causes the Jacobs espoused in the 1960s caused them to quit Greenwich Village and the United States. The Vietnam War made her and her husband increasingly fearful that their sons would be jailed for refusing the draft. Accordingly in 1969 the family moved to Toronto, to just the kind of downtown neighbourhood that she valued. The city had largely escaped the fate of so many American cities and Jane Jacobs played an important part in ensuring that this continued, soon being arrested in demonstrations against the proposed Spadina Expressway. She was also influencing the regeneration of the St Lawrence neighbourhood in a far more sensitive way than traditional urban renewal.

Such battles were easier to win than those south of the border. Toronto, like most Canadian cities, did not pursue urban renewal or expressway programmes with the tenacity of Robert Moses or his equivalents elsewhere. It has remained a city of diverse and liveable inner-city neighbourhoods and excellent public transit.

The Jacobs moved to Canada not as exiles but as immigrants, positively seeking a new life. Jane took Canadian citizenship in 1974 which then obliged her to relinquish her US passport. She participated keenly in Canadian affairs and a later book, The Question of Separatism (1980), dealt with the Quebec issue.

Though some among its transportation planners thought her a negative influence for so firmly ruling out urban expressways, Toronto largely cherished her as a distinguished citizen critic. In 1996 she was admitted to the Order of Canada for her seminal writings. The following year the City of Toronto sponsored a conference on "Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter" and instituted the "Jane Jacobs Prize", awarded to individuals contributing to Toronto's vitality. In 2002 the American Sociological Association granted her its Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award.

While her foremost contribution was to urban planning, her later books The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), Systems of Survival (1992), The Nature of Economies (2000) and Dark Age Ahead (2004) took her into wider territory. A particular interest was the role of the city in economic life, leading her to advocate the city state over the nation state.

Throughout all her work, however, was a sense of humanity, that cities were places for people, not the pet projects of urban or business élites. Critics, of whom there have been many, have seen her counter-vision as impractical. Inhibiting the wholesale modernisation of the city, they argue, has merely encouraged a decentralisation of business from the city. And protection of inner neighbourhoods has promoted gentrification, destroying the very social and cultural diversity that was originally present.

In many ways, though, her counter-vision has shaped the planning visions we pursue in Britain today. Lord Rogers of Riverside's Urban Task Force advocates a brand of multi-use, relatively dense cultural urbanism that owes much to Jane Jacobs. The American New Urbanists, John Prescott's guests of honour at the last Urban Summit, in Manchester in February 2005, pursue similar principles. Yet the ever-sceptical Jacobs thought New Urbanism too prone to mistaking image for substance, allowing shopping malls to masquerade as diverse main streets.

Ultimately she wanted cities that embodied the myriad economic and cultural exchanges of an uncorporatised everyday life, not monolithic artefacts of professional or big business visions, however well meaning.

Stephen Ward

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