Jane Jacobs’ ideas about how to create great cities are more popular and important than ever. Her death last week at age 89 has drawn even more attention to her wisdom that basic observation of what a makes neighborhoods work is the best guide to good urban planning, rather than the grandiose but often mistaken aesthetic and social theories foisted by so-called experts.
We’re in the midst of a Jane Jacobs revival right now as part of a reaction to the recent infestation of cold, lifeless “look-at-me” architecture and landscape architecture in cities all over the world. Design-fetish architects and the critics who love them are distressed at Jacobs enduring influence. And rightly so, because she undercuts all their pretentious justifications for a rash of ugly new projects that the vast majority of people intensely dislike. Her books give us the vision to see why this new “starchitecture” is wrongheaded, just as she showed us in the 1960s what was foolish about urban renewal schemes.
New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp complained in 2003 that her landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was “one of 20th Century architecture’s most traumatic events”, because she made a foolproof case that the life of neighborhoods is more important than the design of buildings.
The current Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff took the occasion of Jacobs’ passing as an opportunity to challenge her thinking and her legacy, declaring “her death may also give us permission to move on…” He then implies that Jacobs, and Jacobsism, is to blame for not preventing the gentrification of New York’s SoHo district (which she helped save from Robert Moses’s bulldozers) and the proliferation of autos and suburban sprawl. This is preposterous, akin to blaming to Frederick Law Olmstead for a mugging in your local park.
Jane Jacobs made a brave and important stand against the gutting of our cities and offered a profound contribution to restoring energy and life to New York, Toronto and many modern cities. We all owe Jacobs a great debt, even the New York Times architecture critic who has a much more interesting and inspiring city to write about thanks to her.