Urbanism Hall of Fame: Jane Jacobs inspires sustainable, human-centered cities
Jane Jacobs' community activism has had a lasting impression on today's cities, from sidewalk murals to sustainable transport system. Photo by ruffin_ready/Flickr.

Jane Jacobs’ community activism has had a lasting impression on today’s cities, from sidewalk murals to sustainable transport systems. Photo by ruffin_ready/Flickr.

This is the inaugural entry to our new series on sustainable urban mobility, the Urbanism Hall of Fame, exclusive to TheCityFix. This series is intended to inform people about the leading paradigms surrounding sustainable transport and urban planning and the thinkers behind them. These icons in the field reveal that cities are built as much from competing ideologies as they are from steel and brick, underscoring the importance of informed, active urban citizenship. 

This “Urbanism Hall of Fame” series will span different cities, time periods, and disciplines. What each leader has in common, however, is a dedication towards human-centered, livable, and sustainable cities as well as a clear idea of how to achieve this vision. By presenting their many stories, TheCityFix applauds these leaders’ efforts, and seeks to challenge our readers to think carefully about what defines leadership and innovation in sustainable transport and urban development.

Jane Jacobs: “From movement to access”

In the post World War II era, achieving the American Dream entailed owning a large, detached home in the suburbs with a bright green lawn and a car… or three. Urban centers in the United States were perceived as places to go for work or to pass through. In turn, this idea of what a city should be influenced what planners and city leaders built. Highways b  egan to cut through once vibrant downtowns, enabling the growth of low-density developments. The emerging science of transport planning focused on how to move cars quickly in and out of the city, not move people within the city.

Jane Jacobs, writer and community activist, was central to reversing this mindset. She showed that cities were places of community, encouraged mixed-use development and vibrant pedestrian thoroughfares, and shifted the idea of transport planning from movement to access. In recognition of the way her contributions continue to shape so much of the ideology that urban planners and landscape architects use to create the cities of today, Jacobs is the first entry into TheCityFix’s Urbanism Hall of Fame.

Jane Jacobs holds up petitions and documentary evidence at one of many meetings to save the West Village from the motor vehicle. Photo by Wikimedia.

Jane Jacobs holds up petitions and documentary evidence at one of many meetings to save the West Village from the motor vehicle. Photo by Wikimedia.

Birth of an urban activist

While other families were moving to the suburbs to raise their children, Jacobs and her husband stayed in the mixed-use Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City. As a journalist and a worried citizen, Jacobs began challenging the reigning ideology that cities’ diversity meant chaos and blight. Jacobs saw tumultuous city streets, filled with many cultures, many uses, and many different transport modes as having a “weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order,” but which was at the same time profound in creating dynamic neighborhoods and rich experiences. Her words have gone on to shape arguments in favor of living in cities, the physical design of cities, and the daily lives of urban residents.

Fighting for a cause

Jacobs’ largest undertaking was resisting the Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have run directly through Greenwich Village. Brownstones that sell for an average of US$ 5.23 million today were once in disrepair and considered slums, and were to be replaced by towering apartment complexes. Jacobs advocated for the primarily working class neighborhood through a mix of petitions, lawsuits, committees, and rallies and blocked the initial proposal in 1958. Together with community leaders, she would continue to thwart efforts to build the expressway throughout the 1960s. At the same time, the community also ‘reclaimed’ sections of the road in Washington Square Park f for pedestrian use.

Jacobs drew on her experiences in Greenwich Village to write about larger ideas on anti-modernist, humanistic urban theory, which promoted short blocks to allow for permeable streets, mixed land uses, and walkability. This resulted in the book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” which is today one of the most widely read books by urban planners and city leaders.

Finding a rival

Jacobs’ denouncement of the expressway brought her head to head with Robert Moses, who was at the time one of the most powerful men in New York City, having held multiple public offices. Moses had enormous influence over New York City’s development with relatively little legislative oversight.

Moses and Jacobs could not have been more different when it came to how they wanted the city to look, or the process by which it should be built. Moses took an analytical, solution-oriented approach to cities, and applauded segregated land uses with distinct purposes. To build this efficient, machine-like city, Moses employed whatever means necessary, often by finding loopholes in the zoning code, under-the-table politics, and ever-increasing consolidation of power.

Jacobs, on the other hand, believed in dense, mixed-use, and multicultural urban environments. In one of her most famous passages, she upholds New York City’s seemingly messy, chaotic city sidewalks as a form of dance:

“This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any once place is always replete with new improvisations.”

Redefining cities and city planners

Beyond urban form, Jacobs believed that a thriving city could only be built through public participation and civic activism. She resisted the label of ‘planner’ at a time when urban planners worked more as aesthetic overseers of the city. Ironically, the entire field of urban planning has shifted around Jacobs’ ideas, so while she was once one of urban planners’ greatest challengers, Jacobs has since come to define the field and the profession.

Stay tuned for future entries to the Urbanism Hall of Fame series, exclusive to TheCityFix.

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