Page N3.2 . 31 May 2006                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department
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Jane Jacobs, City Seer


She realized that the ordinary human life she saw children being watched over by shopkeepers, neighbors meeting on the doorstep, people picking up dry cleaning, men stopping at the local tavern for a beer was what keeps cities glued together. She also understood that this life, as ordinary as it is, was fragile, not to be taken for granted, and in danger of disappearing under the impact of modern, abstract, theory-driven architectural and planning practice.

Action from Observation

The principal inferences she made from her observations the need for mixed uses, small blocks, aged buildings, and concentration represent understandings about a complex system that is at once physical and social, the order of which was thoroughly misinterpreted by modernists who applied analytical methods that sought to isolate systems rather than integrate them.

The modernist way of thought had led to financially and politically entrenched single-use zoning and ultimately the dominance of the automobile. Jacobs's particular genius was to make her criticism seem like ordinary common sense.

Understanding that cities are not buildings and streets alone, or economic systems alone, but highly complex phenomena that transcend the observational perspectives of architects or economists, Jacobs called herself an "urbanologist" rather than a planner or critic.

At the end of Death and Life, she wrote a final chapter titled "The Kind of Problem a City Is." Here, she anticipated the systems theorists of the subsequent two decades, and the complexity facing scientists of today who were and are, like Jacobs, trying to find an alternative to reductive methods of science and practice.

With confidence in her conclusions, Jacobs helped mobilize people to save lower Manhattan from the plans of Robert Moses, for many years the most powerful man in New York, who combined modernist planning ideas with an insatiable hubris.

Moses had proposed the construction of three cross-town expressways that would have destroyed the local life of vast areas of Manhattan. After she moved to Toronto during the Vietnam War, she continued to work on behalf of the human life of ordinary neighborhoods.

Enduring Legacy

Through her writings and her own example as an activist, Jane Jacobs's influence has been as great as anyone's on the shape of North American cities. Expressways and isolated highrise housing projects have been taken down. Transformed zoning regulations have challenged the idea of the single-function zone.

Local groups all over the United States have been empowered to stand up against developers and highway engineers. In actions surrounding Battery Park City in New York, downtown Portland, Oregon, the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco, and the revitalization of neighborhoods everywhere, people who love cities for the texture and diversity of the life they contain have been emboldened by Jacobs's ideas.

The fate of American cities is by no means clear, however, and the battles are still being waged. Big developers, zoning bureaucrats, and the automobile still hold sway in most places. Even New Urbanists, who may rightfully claim a piece of Jacobs's legacy, have their critics who point to exclusivity rather than economic diversity, planned monotony rather than spontaneous variety.

The fate of New Orleans and the World Trade Center site are being contested partly with the help of arguments that were first advanced by Jacobs. But with each, the ultimate direction is far from clear.

In retrospect, we can see that Jacobs was a product of her time as much as of her personal background. In 1961, the country was beginning to stir from the complacency of the immediate-postwar years. John F. Kennedy, symbol of a young generation, became president. Silent Spring, Rachel Carson's anti-pesticide book that launched the modern environmental movement, was being finished. The civil rights movement was gathering momentum.

So the time was right for someone articulate to say "no" to the replacement of urban neighborhoods even if they were "blighted" or even "slums" with freeways and faceless housing projects.

If Jacobs had not said what needed to be said, it is unclear who would have done so. In the spring of 2004, she made an appearance in Portland, Oregon, to promote her last book, Dark Age Ahead. She was frail but still had the sharpest mind in the room of 200 or so people, with answers to academics and journalists half her age, revealing once again the power of her fresh way of seeing the world.

That way of seeing was at her core, and it is what she wanted other people to be able to do. The Death and Life of Great American Cities has no illustrations, and a note at the beginning of the book explains this, asking the reader to join her quest: "The scenes that illuminate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger, and think about what you see."

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Howard Davis is the author of The Culture of Building and professor of architecture at the University of Oregon.



ArchWeek Image

Boston's lively Faneuil Hall Marketplace, by Benjamin Thompson, a successful and adaptive reuse of a historic structure.
Photo: John Simakauskas/ Artifice Images

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New York's St. Marks Place, with street level shops, stoops, and ordinary life.
Photo: Howard Davis

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New York's Upper Broadway, with its active, mixed-use sidewalks.
Photo: Howard Davis

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Downtown Chicago: Crown Fountain, designed by Krueck & Sexton.
Photo: David Owen

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Downtown Portland, Oregon: much-used Keller Fountain Park, embedded in an urban context.
Photo: David Owen

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Lovejoy Fountain, also in downtown Portland, but separated from pedestrian traffic, demonstrates that sculptural interest alone doesn't guarantee popularity.
Photo: David Owen

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New York's Little Italy, where Jane Jacobs observed neighbors looking after one another.
Photo: Howard Davis

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Urban life at Broadway and 81st Street, New York.
Photo: Howard Davis


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