WHO IS JANE?
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a community-based approach to city building. She had no formal training as a planner, and yet her 1961 treatise, The Death & Life of Great American Cities, introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve, and fail that have become commonsense cannon for today’s architects, planners, policymakers, activists, and other city builders.
Jacobs saw cities as dynamic, complex ecosystems with their own logic and order. With a keen eye for detail, she wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, design, and self-organization. She advocated for higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies, and mixed-use zoning. Jacobs helped derail the car-centered approach to urban planning in both New York and Toronto and invigorated neighborhood activism by helping to stop the expansion of expressways and roads. She lived in Greenwich Village until 1968, when she moved to Toronto and continued her work and writing on urbanism, economics, and social issues until her death in April 2006.
A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighborhoods develop, Jacobs encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work, and play with words like these:
"No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”
— Jane Jacobs, "Downtown is for People" (Fortune Classic, 1958)
Jacobs’ wrote incisively and beautifully on the importance of dense and vibrant cityscapes, famously uncovering the ‘sidewalk ballet’, that intricate dance between neighbors and passersby that makes a street enjoyable and friendly.
Cities as Ecosystems
Jacobs approached cities as living beings and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighborhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city - sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy - functions together synergistically, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. This understanding helps us discern how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.
Jacobs advocated for "mixed-use" urban development - the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being "organic, spontaneous, and untidy," and views the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.
Bottom-Up Community Planning
Jacobs contested the traditional planning approach that relies on the judgment of outside experts, proposing that local expertise is better suited to guiding community development. She based her writing on empirical experience and observation, noting how the prescribed government policies for planning and development are usually inconsistent with the real-life functioning of city neighborhoods.
The Case for Higher Density.
Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.
By dissecting how cities and their economies emerge and grow, Jacobs cast new light on the nature of local economies. She contested the assumptions that cities are a product of agricultural advancement; that specialized, highly efficient economies fuel long-term growth; and that large, stable businesses are the best sources of innovation. Instead, she developed a model of local economic development based on adding new types of work to old, promoting small businesses, and supporting the creative impulses of urban entrepreneurs.