COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Jane Jacobs

Jan 2, 2010
Dec 14, 2017

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urban writer and activist who championed new, community-based approaches to planning for over 40 years. Her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became one of the most influential American texts about the inner workings and failings of cities, inspiring generations of urban planners and activists. Her efforts to stop downtown expressways and protect local neighborhoods invigorated community-based urban activism and helped end Parks Commissioner Robert Moses's reign of power in New York City.

Jacobs had no professional training in the field of city planning, nor did she hold the title of planner. Instead, she relied on her observations and common sense to show why certain places work, and what can be done to improve those that do not. Together with PPS mentor William H. Whyte, Jacobs led the way in advocating for a place-based, community-centered approach to urban planning, decades before such approaches were considered sensible. William "Holly" Whyte was her editor at Fortune Magazine, who published her seminal article "Downtown is for People" (1958)--the piece that inspired the Rockefeller Foundation to fund her to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities.


Jacobs was born in 1916 in the coal mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor and a former school teacher and nurse. After graduating from high school, she took an unpaid position as the assistant to the women's page editor at the Scranton Tribune. A year later, in the middle of the Depression, she left Scranton for New York City. During her first several years in the city she held a variety of jobs, working mainly as a stenographer and freelance writer, often writing about working districts in the city. These experiences, she explains, "gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like."

While working for the Office of War Information she met her husband, architect Robert Jacobs. In 1952 Jacobs became associate editor of Architectural Forum, allowing her to more closely observe the mechanisms of city planning and urban renewal. In the process, she became increasingly critical of conventional planning theory and practice, observing that many of the city rebuilding projects she wrote about were not safe, interesting, alive, or economically sound. She gave a speech on this issue at Harvard in 1956, and William H. Whyte invited her to write a corresponding article in Fortune magazine, titled "Downtown is for People." In 1961 she presented these observations and her own prescriptions in the landmark book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, challenging the dominant establishment of modernist professional planning and asserting the wisdom of empirical observation and community intuition.

During the 1960s Jacobs also became involved in urban activism, spearheading local efforts to oppose the top-down neighborhood clearing and highway building championed by New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. In 1962 she became the chairman of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, in reaction to Moses' plans to build a highway through Manhattan's Washington Square Park and West Village. Her efforts to stop the expressway led to her arrest during a demonstration in 1968, and the campaign is often considered to be one of the turning points in the development of New York City. Moses had previously pushed through the Cross-Bronx Expressway and other motorways despite neighborhood opposition, and the defeat of the Lower Manhattan Expressway was an important victory for local community interests and an instigator of Moses's fall from power. Jacobs' harsh criticism of "slum-clearing" and high-rise housing projects was also instrumental in discrediting these once universally supported planning practices.

In 1968 Jacobs moved with her family to Toronto, in opposition to the Vietnam War. In Toronto, she remained an outspoken critic of top-down city planning. In the early 1970s she helped lead the Stop Spadina Campaign, to prevent the construction of a major highway through some of Toronto's liveliest neighborhoods. She also advocated for greater autonomy of the City of Toronto, criticized the bloated electric company Ontario Hydro, supported broad revisions in Toronto's Official Plan and other planning policies, and opposed expansion of the Toronto Island Airport. After publishing The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her interests and writings broadened, encompassing more discussion of economics, morals, and social relations. Her subsequent books include The Economy of Cities (1969); The Question of Separatism (1980); Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984); Systems of Survival (1993); and most recently The Nature of Economies (2000). She became a Canadian citizen in 1974 and lived in Toronto until her death on April 25th, 2006.


Cities as Ecosystems. Jacobs approached cities as living beings and ecosystems. She suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighborhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city - sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods, government, economy - functions together synergistically, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. This understanding helps us discern how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.

Mixed-Use Development. Jacobs advocated for "mixed-use" urban development - the integration of different building types and uses, whether residential or commercial, old or new. According to this idea, cities depend on a diversity of buildings, residences, businesses and other non-residential uses, as well as people of different ages using areas at different times of day, to create community vitality. She saw cities as being "organic, spontaneous, and untidy," and views the intermingling of city uses and users as crucial to economic and urban development.

Bottom-Up Community Planning. Jacobs contested the traditional planning approach that relies on the judgment of outside experts, proposing that local expertise is better suited to guiding community development. She based her writing on empirical experience and observation, noting how the prescribed government policies for planning and development are usually inconsistent with the real-life functioning of city neighborhoods.

The Case for Higher Density. Although orthodox planning theory had blamed high density for crime, filth, and a host of other problems, Jacobs disproved these assumptions and demonstrated how a high concentration of people is vital for city life, economic growth, and prosperity. While acknowledging that density alone does not produce healthy communities, she illustrated through concrete examples how higher densities yield a critical mass of people that is capable of supporting more vibrant communities. In exposing the difference between high density and overcrowding, Jacobs dispelled many myths about high concentrations of people.

Local Economies. By dissecting how cities and their economies emerge and grow, Jacobs cast new light on the nature of local economies. She contested the assumptions that cities are a product of agricultural advancement; that specialized, highly efficient economies fuel long-term growth; and that large, stable businesses are the best sources of innovation. Instead, she developed a model of local economic development based on adding new types of work to old, promoting small businesses, and supporting the creative impulses of urban entrepreneurs.


"Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings."

"Being human is itself difficult, and therefore all kinds of settlements (except dream cities) have problems. Big cities have difficulties in abundance, because they have people in abundance. But vital cities are not helpless to combat even the most difficult problems."

"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody."

"Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving, and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties... Lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves."

"Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental."

"In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity."

"As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense."

"...that the sight of people attracts still other people, is something that city planners and city architectural designers seem to find incomprehensible. They operate on the premise that city people seek the sight of emptiness, obvious order and quiet. Nothing could be less true. The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact - they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated."

"Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos. On the contrary, they represent a complex and highly developed form of order."


"With humility and common sense, she taught the world how to understand and value cities through direct observation, persistent questioning and discovery. Her faith in the wisdom of local citizens lives on in the civic battles in which she participated and her wisdom lives on in the writing of her nine seminal books." - The Center for the Living City at Purchase College

"Probably no single thinker has done more in the last fifty years to transform our ideas about the nature of urban life." - Chicago Tribune

"Jane Jacobs' observations about the way cities work and don't work revolutionized the urban planning profession. Thanks to Jacobs, ideas once considered lunatic, such as mixed-use development, short blocks, and dense concentrations of people working and living downtown, are now taken for granted." - Adele Freedman, The Globe and Mail

"Jane Jacobs, the world-famous apostle of livable cities, almost single-handedly reshaped the way urban planners think about their profession. Planners hated her book when it came out, but it's required reading in universities around the world." - Alexander Ross, Canadian Business

"[Jacobs] believes in power being exercised by individuals or people in small groups rather than big governments and corporations. Jane Jacobs believes that most problems, if solvable at all, will be solved not by the elaborate schemes of experts but by spontaneous invention." - Robert Fulford, Imperial Oil Review

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space