Legacy of Jane Jacobs

Illustration by Curbed

This week our friend Aaron Coe shared with us his studies on Jane Jacobs and her theories of urban planning and development. He began by sharing that Jane Jacobs is one of the most influential people in our lives that we don't even know. It is our hope that by reading this post you too learn more about Jane Jacobs and realize the impact that ordinary people can have in the community.

Jane Jacobs is one of the most influential people in our lives that we don’t even know
— Aaron COE

Meet : Jane Jacobs.

An extraordinary person who chose to fight for her community's development, even with no formal training in urban planning or architecture. In fact, she started her career in 1952 working as a journalist at the Architectural Forum Magazine. Working here launched her interest and passion around urban development, which eventually lead to her saving two significant neighborhoods in New York City...we will get to that in a bit.

A little background about the development climate at this time...  The 1940's, 50's, and 60's were a significant time in urban planning. Populations were growing and cities were working with urban planners to create solutions for density and traffic. Major urban planners at the time promoted ideas of urban sprawl and suburban development. People such as Frank Lloyd Wright believed that harmony would be achieved if individuals owned their own acre of land. Also, Robert Moses, a powerhouse in city planning, determined that interstates would be the solution to creating thriving community. Jane Jacobs observed this happening and believed these proposals were actually opposite of what cities need to thrive.

The tipping point for Jacobs was when her own neighborhood was threatened with a poor proposal created by Robert Moses.

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...
— Jane Jacobs

In the late 1930s to early 1960s Robert Moses grew in his influence in urban planning. Many governmental authorities adopted his plans of interstate proposals to solve issues in the city.  In the late 1950's,  Moses proposed a plan to run a interstate through the heart of SoHo. This plan would have displaced an estimated 1,800 families and 804 businesses.

Jacobs hated this idea and began to rally the neighborhood against the proposal. She believed that an interstate would create a major divide in the city and eventually lead to the destruction of the community. She believed that there needed to be thoughtfulness in these plans, as opposed to taking the easiest land possible. (If you observe communities today, you can see this specific theory of Jacobs playing out today. No one is looking to move into a community with a highway going through the middle of it.)

Jacobs was arrested a few different times in her efforts, but in the end successfully preserved Washington Square Park and SoHo in New York City from detrimental interstate plans. Her argument was based on her belief of dense and diverse cities, explained more in depth in her book : The Death and Life Of Great American Cities.

The launch of The Death and Life Of Great American Cities in 1961, was crucial in Jacob's fight to preserve cities, as opposed to tear them down and start over. It is in this book that she explains, in detail, what she believes makes a city safe, what causes it to thrive, and also why city planners have failed.

Jacobs strongly believed that there are four conditions of city diversity:

1. Mixed primary uses : "live, work, play"

“The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must ensure that presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.”

2. The need for small blocks : Accessibility to the city

“Most blocks must be short, that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.”

3. Need for aged buildings : Affordability, mixed income

“The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.”

4. The need for a concentration of people : Only through people can there be a thriving community

“There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes a dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.”

The ideas of Jane Jacobs not only shaped development in the 1960's, but developers continue to use her ideas today. Jacobs insight into what creates thriving communities are things that we all can learn from.

Jacobs is an example that better is truly possible.