News & Politics

The Death and Life of Jane Jacobs


    Human beings are, of course, a part of nature, as much so as grizzly bears or bees of whales or sorghum cane. The cities of human beings are as natural, being a product of one form of nature, as the colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters. – Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

    All around the five boroughs this morning, on broad avenues and side streets, disorder reigns. Buses muscle in and out of traffic, people squeeze past each other to get into or out of subway stations, folks eat breakfast at diner counters just feet from cans of paint and buckets of nails in hardware stores next door. Guys hawk newspapers or purses on the corner, and delivery trucks back in to their loading docks down the block. Millions upon millions packed into the same place, engaged in undirected, contradictory motion. Anyone can see that it’s crazy. Jane Jacobs saw that it works.

    The day after her death in Toronto at age 89, Jacobs is of course being remembered for her singular impact on urban theory. But for many city fans, reading the “Death and Life of Great American Cities” offered not just an engaging academic argument. More than that, her book gave shape to the philosophical, even spiritual idea that within the “irrationality and chaos of cities” there was a logic—or perhaps a soul—guiding all those disparate, conflicting forces toward something good.

    It was a kind of organic, democratic process that experts of the time didn’t get:

      Cities are an immense laboratory of trial and error, failure and success in city building and city design. This is the laboratory in which city planning should have been learning and forming and testing its theories. Instead the practitioners and teachers of this discipline have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—from anything but cities themselves.

    Jacobs’s ideas about cities were so influential, and were proposed so long ago (1961), that one might debate how relevant her comments are to today’s urban issues. Perhaps everyone in the argument over, say, the Atlantic Yards development has internalized her ideas about mixed uses and small blocks, and they’re fighting about something else. But on the tube the American ideal is still the trim little Colonial with a big yard and a basketball hoop, and outside the city limits, strip malls multiply and Home Depots spring up after farms disappear. Or, as Jacobs put it, “each day, several thousand more acres of our countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find.”

    One tension that Jacobs detected will never disappear: the difference between making cities better, and trying to make them into something they are not. She was all for the former. She knew the latter—while almost instinctual for many of us—would never work. “Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties,” she wrote in the final chapter of The Death and Life, called “the kind of problem a city is.” She added: “Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lovely, diverse, intense cities contain the seed of their own regeneration.”

    This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 26, 2006


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