Anyone who ever met Jane Jacobs or read her books couldn’t help but be infected by her enthusiasms. She loved cities and celebrated the life that teems within them. She articulated better than anyone how the best ideas about making cities great come not from theories and master plans but from careful observation of what goes on around us. This was a startling, radical idea when she first proposed it in the 1950s and 60s, and it changed the way North Americans think about cities.
But above all else, Jane Jacobs loved people. Whether chronicling the habits of fellow city-dwellers or organizing a campaign with her neighbors to save important places from destruction, she was always engaged in the life of her community.
It is hard to imagine a world without Jane Jacobs, harder still to imagine what shape our cities would be in had she never come along. Today her books are classics, taught in universities all over the world. Her ideas are well-known by planners, architects, and activists everywhere. But at the time The Death and Life of Great American Cities was released in 1961, she was a brave, singular voice challenging the dominant theories of the entire planning establishment. Without any formal training in city planning, she managed to transform the field. Indeed, her lack of a degree in architecture, planning or even journalism is often cited as the secret of her wisdom and innovation. She took a fresh look at what makes cities work and what makes them fail, never blinded by the assumptions and orthodoxy of a particular profession. Jane Jacobs was a true original.
One of her earliest champions was William “Holly” Whyte, then an editor at Fortune Magazine who encouraged her to write a series of articles in the late 1950s that became the basis for Death and Life. Later in life, Jane always professed a special affinity for Holly, who had gone on in the early 1970s to create the Streetlife Project, which in turn led to the founding of Project for Public Spaces. She was one of the first people to visit the PPS office in 1975, and we were fortunate to have spoken with her and shared our progress every few months in recent years. Her advice, encouragement, and dedication to the cause of making places great have been invaluable to us and to our mission.
It has become fashionable of late for certain architects and critics infatuated by high design to pooh-pooh her thinking as rigid and out-of-date. But such groundless criticism has never made even a dent in her legacy, since so many people from so many fields have been influenced and inspired by her wisdom.
We are greatly saddened by Jane Jacobs’ death yesterday, but confident that her infectious love for cities will be carried on by many followers far into the future. We will miss her dearly.
– The Staff of Project for Public Spaces
For more about the life and ideas of Jane Jacobs, see her Placemaker Profile.