Urbane Renewalist

Jane Jacobs showed us how cities really work.

Author John O'Hara once wrote, after the death of his friend George Gershwin, "I don't have to believe that if I don't want to." That's pretty much how I felt when I learned of Jane Jacobs' death in April. 

In photos, she looks both motherly and zealous—like someone who could spend the morning cheerily baking cookies, then dash out to join a picket line or lead a demonstration against something. She ran afoul of the law once, at a public hearing on a proposed highway that would have slashed across Lower Manhattan: Apparently there was some sort of scuffle, a stenographic machine was damaged, and Jacobs was arrested for inciting a disturbance. The phrase is an apt description of what she achieved with her landmark 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

It's a book pregnant with Message, but its didacticism is in a gentle vein. To support her premise that the government-funded "revitalization" program known (with unintended irony) as Urban Renewal is utterly wrong-headed, Jacobs calmly shares her observations on how cities work. In one chapter, for example, she asserts that old buildings are good to have around because they generally offer cheap rents and therefore provide affordable incubator space for new businesses. The opening sentence of this section is one that preservationists have been clutching to their collective bosoms for 45 years now: "Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them." You go, Jane!

Reading Jacobs' commonsense pronouncements, you're led to some simple but inescapable conclusions: A city is a complex, finely tuned ecosystem with disparate parts—buildings, streets, traffic, sidewalks, gathering places, people—that are both intertwined and interdependent. Start messing with things—by replacing comfy old buildings with oversized new ones, for instance, or reducing opportunities for chance face-to-face encounters among neighbors and strangers, or obliterating a human-scaled street grid in favor of "superblocks," or legislating mixed uses out of existence—and you risk destroying the delicate balance that has been achieved over time. And if that happens, you wind up with a place that is dull at best, downright unlivable at worst.

The information and insight she offers are not exactly startling, but nobody else had ever presented them so compellingly. Before Jane Jacobs, most people seemed willing to believe that planners and bureaucrats knew what was best for us in matters of urban design. Jacobs kicked that mindset to the curb, encouraging "ordinary" folks to trust their own instincts about what makes a place viable and appealing—and pointing out that the emperor named Urban Renewal not only had no clothes but was full of baloney as well. Her perspective was refreshing in 1961 and still seems so today, which explains why the book is still in print, still widely read and quoted.

In 1968 Jacobs left New York for Toronto, where she settled down without letting up. Proving that she hadn't lost what used to be called the courage of one's convictions, she published the last of her several books, Dark Age Ahead (which drew pointed parallels between modern-day Western civilization and the collapsing Roman Empire), just two years ago, when she was 87. 

When I first picked up the book that made Jane Jacobs famous—I think I was in graduate school—I pondered the significance of the title. Why "Death and Life"? Why not the other way round? Here's what I've come to believe: Even at a time when several forces—not only Urban Renewal but also interstate highway construction and generalized shortsightedness in high places—seemed bent on obliterating traditional urban centers and putting up something else, she was fundamentally optimistic about the future of cities (if not whole civilizations).

She never claimed to have all the answers, but she insisted that we ask the right questions. She urged us to see communities with clear eyes so that we could appreciate what really makes them tick. Perhaps most important, she encouraged us to believe that cities can be lively, beautiful, supportive places to live and work and play in—and we don't have to destroy them in order to save them.

We should all hope to leave behind so great a legacy.

For more photos, stories, and tips, subscribe to the print edition of Preservation magazine.