Carrying the Torch for Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs’ 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities is widely acknowledged and accepted as the bible of post-war urbanism. A close observation of the day to day mechanisms of city life, of activity on the streets, and in the parks, and in the shops, it is a detailed assessment of what works and what doesn’t, of which factors lead to city success and which lead to failure.

Jacobs understood that a city is like a story, with characters (who hang out on the street and watch out for the life of the place), and a plot that hinges on those characters, and she told the story of America’s cities in a way that has somehow, very powerfully, endured.

Google paid tribute to Jane Jacobs on her centennial in 2016.

Her story of cities was a kind of 19th-century romanticism, very much pre-industrial, where everyone walked everywhere, where the scale of the city was human, not automotive, and where the the urban ills of the 1960s (urban renewal, highways bulldozing through neighborhoods, segregation, racial tension, and white-flight to the suburbs) were somehow both omnipresent and mysteriously absent. A backdrop and catalyst for her observations.

At a time when Americans seem to be coming back to cities, investing in urban development, restoring “historic” buildings and city cores, people are rediscovering Jane Jacobs and holding up her vision of urban life as blueprint and mantra. You can see and hear her vision in the plans of the New Urbanists (who like to think of themselves as her heirs) and in every mixed-use development from Portland, Maine to Portland, Oregon.

So why is it that her ideas have endured so well? Or, conversely, why is it that they are so popular at this historical moment? What is it that’s happening in American cities now that makes Jane Jacobs relevant and worth talking about? Who’s carrying the torch for her today, preserving her ideas and ideals? And, might that somehow be a bad thing?

Guest List
David Dixon
formerly head of planning and urban design at Goody Clancy, an architecture, planning, and preservation firm in Boston.

Neil Smith
late professor of anthropology, CUNY Graduate Center, director, CUNY's Center for Place, Culture, and Politics, and author, The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City.  

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  • webgremlin

    Just as there was a huge migration termed “white flight” out of urban centers in the 70’s and 80’s we are seeing a similar trend again. This time though, it is a migration out of suburbs. Both exurban and urban areas are experiencing dramatic increases in population and property values as professionals try to escape long commutes and culturally bland suburbs.

    Jacobs describes the vibrancy of urban life most recently coveted by “alternative” communities such as gays and punks in the 80’s and early 90’s. Then found attractive by yuppies throughout the 90’s. Now after a couple decades, these urban frontiersmen have paved the way for the rest of middle class United States.

    That said, neo-urbanism is a movement that caters middle to upper class citizens. Gentrification now does not happen only within neighborhoods of cities, but across metropolitan areas. As poorer populations are pushed into suburbs, where are needed services going to come from? Many suburban areas do not have the infrastructure to deal with social needs. How then, are these issues going to be dealt with in the next 20 years?

  • khasidi

    Jane Jacobs also wrote about the economics of cities in Cities and the Wealth of Nations. She said that economies divided naturally at the level of the city rather than on the national level and even advocated city currencies as a method to stimulate regional trade balance. This aspect of her thinking has been largely ignored as being “too far out;” but her ideas on multi-centered, city-based economics are quite sensible if they could be acted on.

    Good subject for an entire program!

  • deadforever

    What do you think Jane would think of the gentrification of New Orleans. The methods have changed but the results are the same.

  • Ben

    Hasn’t it always been for the elite or financially well off to build the new neighborhoods in urban areas? I’m thinking of NYC migrating north up the Manhattan island. If that’s true, then with the rebuilding of the core areas of American cities isn’t gentrification and price outs of lower income people a natural progession in the redeveleopment of urban core? Do lower middle income follk like my self wait it out until there is another migration to another highly desireable location?

  • mulp

    I’m late to tonight’s discussion, but just as I got tuned in I heard a comment about the realtors segregating the “classes” to preserve asset values.

    I had the revelation just recently that an American home, or house, is not an asset, but a liability. Somewhere recently I heard, “an asset generates cash, a liability consumes cash”, and I “own” my home, but it costs me cash, in the property taxes and upkeep.

    So, the Bush mantra about Americans being wealthier because more own their own homes is really, more people have more liabilities to worry about.

    Rather, we need to look at homes for what they contribute to our lives for the cash they demand, even when we own them free and clear.

    And a house sitting in an isolation zone is merely offering shelter, but what we should be demanding is a community.

    The problem is that we talk of houses as assets, like shares of stock, as tons a commodity like steel, and not in terms that matter to us.

  • JP Dan

    How do we do a comfortable city in Hip-Hop America when the neighborhoods are tagged to hideousness? We spend a lot of money to make neighborhoods user-friendly but the adolescent ego trumphs everything.

  • BJ

    Neil Smith has a point. I urban diversity is an endangered species. When I moved to Boston’s South End from Chicago in 1992, I used to love walking to work if only for the music pouring from the windows–hip hop and salsa mingling with the classics. Those sounds have been replaced by Starbucks CDs. Even more importantly, the neighborhood was peppered with rooming houses. As these buildings have been condo-ized to accommodate the return of exurbanites, the former denizens of these single-room occupancy dwellings haven’t been able to make a reciprocal relocation to the suburbs. As a result, the homeless census grows by the year. The same is true in Chicago’s loop where factories have been turned into lofts and the projects into gated communities.

  • Potter

    Chris sounds skeptical but the guest that is saying that we need a Jane Jacobs for surburbia is right on.

  • Ben

    I prefer tagging to box store logos. Have found in my neighborhoods that allowing a wall or other limited grafitti space to exist dramatically reduces it’s proliferation to less appropriate places.

  • khasidi

    Cities are formed by their economic structures. If you ignore her later work on economics and then say that she doesn’t address modern problems or problems of the suburbs, you are ignoring one of the chief forces that she says control the form of cities.

    The kind of middle-class prosperity that supports the shape she looked for in cities cannot come about when wealth is being drained out of some regions because they are captured by the distant markets of other cities. Without multicentered economics, some cities are going to decay (Detroit for instance) This is not a “planning” problem, it is an economic problem. Once again, please include some reference to Cities and the Wealth of Nations, it is crucial.

  • Potter

    We are experiencing and “infilling” of the suburbs. If you look at density maps over the last 50 years you can see what is happening.

    This by the way is a way, a chance, to integrate us more as well.

  • Ben

    great show

  • Potter

    By the way I still have my copy of Jane Jacobs book from the 60’s.

  • Potter

    And I can’t forgive Robert Moses for wrecking my beautiful neighborhood -with it’s park of huge old trees, benches, stone steps cascading down to the Harlem River- as the Cross Bronx Expressway, manifest destiny, came through. This was the Bronx in the 50’s and early 60’s. I cannot give my heart to a city after that.

  • mulp, interesting point about houses as liabilites. That puts them alongside boats I guess. You also say “we talk of houses as assets, like shares of stock, as tons a commodity like steel, and not in terms that matter to us.” We also do that about people and animals, so it is no surprise our homes and neighbourhoods lose their greater significance.

  • Ben

    Robert Moses ref Potter – hopefully we will never see anything like that again. I heard a comment once that maybe America was guilt ridden for all the wwii bombing damage and tore itself apart in sympathy to the other cities. Multi-million dollar condos are somewhat less imposing than a freeway, I’d choose them over the renewal of the bad old days any time.

  • khasidi

    Okay, the show is over and I have time to write something more coherent. It’s hard to write and listen at the same time!

    I am hearing several different strains here and I am going to try to outline them (please pardon this linear approach),

    1. Good urban neighborhoods are inherently unstable because as soon as they get good, rich people move in and the original residents are forced out by rising prices (gentrification). This is the process that BJ complains about in Boston’s South End.

    2. Jane Jacobs’s ideas are chiefly aimed at more well-to-do city dwellers. The kind of neighborhoods she advocates are unafordable to lower income people.

    3. I am not sure what JP Dan’s point about adolescent hideousness was about, but he (?) seems to be saying that today’s pop culture is ruining urban neighborhoods. I need more details to understand his point.

    4. Business interests, like realtors, have economic interests that work against the establishment of urban communities.

    5. Housing and community is a necessity for existence. The fact that real estate prices rise too high to be affordable to any but the very rich is a problem that must be addressed. People shouldn’t be forced to move because their homes become too expensive for them to remain in. (This was the point that one of the guests was making. I didn’t get his name, but he seemed to have an Irish accent.)

    I wanted to come back to the idea of the economic situation of a city as one of the chief factors in the formation of its structure. Jacobs argued that the economies of cities had influence over “city regions.” If these regions were close by (geographically) the influence was generally good, but when distant regions come under the influence of the city, the city will drain it of its wealth. She argued that a healthy region would center economically on a local city. The health of the city depended on it’s ability to function as an independent, import replacing, economic unit. The problem with the economies of cities like Detroit has been that they depended on one product — automobiles in this case — but most other goods and many services, are supplied from distant cities. When the city’s one industry runs into trouble, everything collapses. In a healthy urban economy, the city’s economy and that of the local region, is constantly replacing imported goods and services with products that are produced locally (this is called an “import replacing economy”). As Imports are replaced, it doesn’t eliminate trade with other urban regions, rather it enriches it as the city develops more products for export.

    A lot of the problems of poverty that exist in modern cities will lessen, according to Jacobs, as prosperity increases. But in order for this to happen, a city needs a certain autonomy in ordering it’s economic affairs. In classical economics, monetary policy has been one of the chief tools for maintaining balance of trade. Theoretically, a nation whose money has a low value will be able to sell its products at a low price which will, in turn, attract lots of buyers and this will help the economy to develop. But Jacobs pointed out that, in a country like the United States, a city like New York can be very strong economically, while Birmingham Alabama may be doing poorly. Economic and monetary policy that is good for New York will be quite harmful for Birmingham, while if policy is tailored for Birmingham, it could be disasterous for New York. For this reason, Jacobs advocated monetary systems at the city, rather than the national level.

    A locally administered economy might also have a great effect on regulating the price of real estate.

    Sorry for being so long winded. I had been hoping that the discussion on Jane Jacobs would focus solely on the architectural aspects of her work. Nobody seems to have noticed her later books. Maybe they are just too radical.

  • alice

    re: David Dixon’s take on what Jane would think about planning today: I don’t agree that she would embrace today’s planning. Jacobs by nature hated rules, hence city planning, i.e. the imposition of “rules” onto cities, was anathema to her in, 1961 when she wrote her book, and always remained so. In fact one of her favorite subjects during the last twenty y ears of her life was “drift,” a concept she applied everywhere, not just to cities but also to economies, the subject she picked up and ran with after Death and Life.

    Also, re: the question about suburbs you posed to Robert Fishman: Jacobs had some interesting things to say about suburbs. For example she proposed that suburbs, like cities, would be recycled, i.e., I t hink what she meant was that they would evolve into something better. Note that her vision remained fundamentally optimistic.

    Alice Sparberg Alexiou (author, Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Rutgers University Press, June 2006.)

  • Bob Terragno

    I needed to register before I could send a comment, so the program on Jane Jacobs has just wrapped up. I would only add that none of the guests on the program addressed the crucial interaction of urban design and transportation systems. Freeways have made suburban flight and sprawl possible. Conversely, no renaissance of humanizing urban spaces is possible on any considerable scale without a renewed commitment to public transit. In fact, some of the best examples of “smart growth” environments are in the form of transit-oriented developments. Building or redeveloping more dense residential neighborhoods along transit routes reduces highway congestion and emissions and lowers the cost of living for those residing near enough to use transit regularly. In addition to many other values, such development is beneficial for low-income populations and for promoting the level of economic, cultural and racial diversity emphasized by one of the guests. Coupled with the savings on transportation costs, locations near transit are ideal for building affordable housing of all kinds and Location Efficient Mortgages reduce those housing costs even more. Such development is indeed compatible with establishing richly diverse urban neighborhoods. You can’t really debate the value of “smart growthâ€? ideas without including the role and contribution of well designed public transit.

  • Brendan, David, Robin, something is wrong with the link to the mp3 file. It takes us to this page.

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    The requested URL /ros/open_source_060427.mp3 was not found on this server.

  • You can hear Jane Jacobs in a 2004 talk given at the Vancouver Public Library in May of 2004 if you subscribe to the podcast at the link below.

  • loki

    Jane Jacobs was a real mensch(sorry for the gender bender anaology) She envisioned a civitas fom of city. Something like the old sound end when Mel King was buiding his rainbow coalition. Today Boston is very rich or very poor. We are loosing the middle class-the glue that holds any civilation together. May be in a strange way wirelees communication will rebuild community-a community Boston tasted briefly in the Blizzard of 78. Public Gardens,parks, elderly,poor,middleclass and wealth living together buidling a city on a Hill. Viva Jane Jacobs!

  • jazzman

    Some of the impediments to the return of the nostalgic neighborly neighborhood that Jane Jacobs experienced are the phenomena of the isolated individual and the breakdown of the nuclear and extended family. People when not working are watching the TV, plugged into their Ipods, on-line or busy at the gym or other self oriented tasks or entertainment. They don’t have or want to acquire the skills or take on the responsibility that socialization requires and are content in their solipsistic entertainment numbed existence.

    Often in urban areas (gentrified or not) people are afraid of their neighbors and do not wish to interact with or get involved in the ambient community preferring to socialize with a small set of friends or remain behind multiple locks and barred windows. Due to the modern economic situation, 2 parent families need both parents to be wage earners so no one is home during the day; the kids are in daycare where they used to be cared for by grandparents. In many cases grandparents are raising children of divorce abandoned by both parents. The luxury of having the time or inclination to watch the comings and goings of the neighborhood from the stoop or window has receded into a Jacobsian nostalgia.

    The grail of mass local employment in the modern age is impractical. The manufacturing base is gone and no one wants a factory in the neighborhood anyway. The skills set for today’s work is not likely to coalesce in any urban area, the best that could be feasible for local employment is telecommuting or working at home. I think that urban renewal or reuse will be ghettoized by ethnic groups and new immigrants as they were throughout our past. The class and ethnic diversity that the neo-urbanistas envision is unrealistic and more dystopian than utopian.

  • Potter

    Jazzman- good thoughtful post.

  • warren

    I feel Chris didn’t do justice to Neil Smith’s idea’s, particularly the need to have better plans for economic diversity. Part of the New Deal created urban living housing that was cooperatively owned by low-income folks, and can be found in a couple cities. A couple units can be found in my old neighborhood in Eugene, OR.

    Federally provided low-income housing, and community land trust’s are great models which should be incorporated into the New Urbanism philosophy. We at least need a strong caucus at the next National New Urbanism conference.

    These kind of efforts would be a great mechanism for re-building New Orleans.

    Great show.


  • Ben

    For aftershow browsers – a NYT story from the following Sunday,

    Critic’s Notebook: Outgrowing Jane Jacobs and Her New York

    By Nicolai Ouroussoff, April 30, 2006

  • Brent Taylor

    Ben, I saw a condensed version of that editorial in the Toronto Star as well.

    From it:

    “Time passes. Jane Jacobs, the great lover of cities who stared down Robert Moses’s bulldozers and saved many of New York’s most precious neighbourhoods, died last week at 89. It is a loss for those who value urban life. But her death may also give us permission to move on, to let go of the obsessive belief that Jacobs held the answer to every evil that faces the contemporary city.”

    Yeah, she had a bunch of great ideas. I’m glad she lived here in Toronto. But she offered little for those suburban/exurban souls who wanted a community too. Not everyone can live in the Annex, or Riverdale (Toronto examples) or Greenwich, but she seemed to be, well, totally uninterested in the suburbs.

    Too bad. I think she could have made a real difference if she’d channeled some of her energies there.

  • T Heller

    Khadisi and Alice are right on. Jane Jacobs’ insight into the underlying economic basis of a city’s success/vibrancy is obviously missed –certainly underappreciated– by planner types. Yet this point is so incredibly important to the contextual framework of their work.

    Bob Terragno’s beliefs about suburbs, transit and smart growth stem from a misunderstanding/misperception/misinterpretation of Ms. Jacobs’ legacy. Smart growth is nothing a hollow slogan — and will prove as ineffectual as the “solutions”advanced down the years by folks as diverse as Robert Moses, Jacob Riis and the federal HUD.

    Jazzman’s additional point about interaction of folks in neighborhoods is one with which Jane would concur.