Page N3.1 . 31 May 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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Jane Jacobs, City Seer

by Howard Davis

Jane Jacobs, who turned 20th-century modernist urban thinking on its head in 1961 with the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, died last week in Toronto, nine days shy of her 90th birthday.

Like many great thinkers, Jacobs saw the world with sharp perception, without intellectual prejudice, and with a fearlessness about the consequences of her observations. Applying the observational rigor of a natural scientist to that most complex of human artifacts, the city, she cut through academic theories to develop a powerful set of insights that put people, neighborhoods, and ordinary daily life in the forefront of American urbanism.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, Jacobs was already an independent thinker and rebel as a schoolgirl. She began her working life during the Great Depression with a series of low-paying jobs that eventually led to a writing stint at Architectural Forum, giving her thinking its first public platform.

Perhaps her lack of a formal education in architecture or planning helped Jacobs to look at cities outside the constraints of conventional theories. She developed her insights while looking down at an active Greenwich Village street from her own apartment at 555 Hudson Street.   >>>

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New York's Chinatown, a gritty but active urban environment.
Photo: Howard Davis

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Urbanity in Toronto, adoptive home of Jane Jacobs.
Photo: David Owen

 

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