Jane Jacobs: Defender of Cities and their People

On April 10, 1968, New York state officials scheduled a public hearing to discuss their plans for an expressway that would have sliced across Lower Manhattan and displaced hundreds of […]

Jane Jacobs

Photo by Colaborativa dot eu via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

On April 10, 1968, New York state officials scheduled a public hearing to discuss their plans for an expressway that would have sliced across Lower Manhattan and displaced hundreds of businesses and the homes of 2,000 families. The expressway’s opponents, including Jane Jacobs, a writer who lived in Greenwich Village, considered the hearing a sham. Jacobs noticed that the microphone was set up so that speakers addressed the crowd, not the transportation officials seated on the stage. When speakers asked the officials questions about the project, they refused to answer, saying that they were just there to listen.


When it was Jacobs’ turn to speak, she gave a blistering critique of the highway plan. Then she announced that she was going to walk up on the stage and march past the officials’ table in silent protest, and she welcomed others to join her. About 50 people followed Jacobs to the stage. “You can’t come up here,” a top state official said. “Get off the stage.” Jacobs refused, so the official summoned the police and shouted, “Arrest this woman.”


Jacobs was taken to the police station and released, promising to appear in court. The next day, and for several days afterward, her arrest was headline news. When she appeared in court on April 17, the city had changed the charges from disorderly conduct to second-degree riot, inciting a riot, criminal mischief, and obstructing public administration, all more serious criminal charges. She was told that she faced anywhere from 15 days to one year in prison for each charge. Many of New York’s leading liberals came to Jacobs’ defense, offering to create a legal fund and writing letters and articles protesting her treatment. The charges were eventually dropped.

This was one battle in a much longer war that Jacobs had waged against top-down city planning, particularly as practiced by New York’s planning and public works czar, Robert Moses. Moses was a master builder who for decades had reshaped the physical landscape of New York City and its suburbs, bulldozing entire neighborhoods, constructing highways, bridges, parks, beaches, and housing projects, all oriented toward the car and away from public transit. From the 1940s through the 1960s, he was considered the most powerful individual in New York, even though he was never elected to any office.


But Moses met his match in Jacobs, whose only ammunition was her typewriter, her network of community activists, and her moral authority. When Moses proposed building a highway bisecting Jacobs’ Greenwich Village neighborhood, she sprung into action, mobilizing her neighbors to challenge and confront the bulldozer bully in the name of human-scale, livable communities. She was no armchair liberal. She was fully engaged in her community and in the battle to save it. For her efforts, she was arrested and jailed.


She persisted even as Moses and other powerful figures tried to vilify her. Eventually, her dissenting ideas found a wider audience. Her courageous efforts helped catalyze a broader grassroots movement against the urban renewal bulldozer, first in New York and then around the country. In 1969 Mayor John Lindsay killed Moses’ expressway plan. It was also the beginning of Moses’ fall from power: Governor Nelson Rockefeller removed him from his positions as head of several powerful agencies.


Perhaps more than anyone else during the past half century, Jacobs—who was born 100 years ago on May 4, 1916—changed the way we think about livable cities. Indeed, it is a mark of her impact that many people influenced by her ideas have never heard of her. Her views have become part of the conventional wisdom, if not always part of the continuing practice of city planning.


Jacobs’ 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, became the manifesto of a movement and a new view of city planning. It was one of a handful of books, published in the 1960s, that helped galvanize movements for reform. These include Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), which inspired the war on poverty; Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which helped galvanize the environmental movement; Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963), the manifesto of modern feminism; Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed (1965), which made its author a household name and precipitated the rise of the consumer movement; and Charles Hamilton and Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power (1967), which signaled the civil rights movement’s transformation toward black separatism.


The 1950s was the heyday of urban renewal, the federal program that sought to wipe out urban blight with the bulldozer. Its advocates were typically downtown businesses, developers, banks, major daily newspapers, big-city mayors, and construction unions—what political scientist John Mollenkopf would later call the “growth coalition” and sociologist Harvey Molotch would label the “growth machine.” Most planners and architects of the time joined the urban renewal chorus, convinced that big development projects would revitalize downtown business districts, stem the exodus of middle-class families to suburbs, and improve the quality of public spaces.


In 1952 Architectural Forum hired Jacobs as an editor, a position she held for 10 years. It was there that her writings about city planning first got attention.


On an assignment in Philadelphia, Jacobs noticed that the streets within an urban renewal project were deserted, whereas an older street nearby was crowded with people. She talked to the project architect, who described its wonderful aesthetics but seemed unconcerned with its impact on real people. Her impression was reinforced by a walking tour of New York’s East Harlem and other neighborhoods, where she came to see that the dominant ideas of city planning—bulldozing low-rise housing in poor neighborhoods and replacing it with tall apartment buildings surrounded by open space—were misguided. Planners preferred straight lines, big blocks, and order, but cities came alive when they brought out the human qualities of randomness, surprise, and social interaction.


In 1958 William Whyte, an editor at Fortune magazine, asked Jacobs to write an article about her views. That piece, “Downtown Is for People,” marked her first public criticism of Moses. The article became the foundation for Death and Life, which she completed three years later: “Designing a dream city is easy. Rebuilding a living one takes imagination.”


“This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding,” she wrote in the book’s opening paragraph. “It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to Sunday supplements and women’s magazines.”


Jacobs’s views about cities drew on her experiences living in Greenwich Village, which she considered the quintessential livable neighborhood. In 1947 she and her husband, an architect, bought a dilapidated three-story building and spent years fixing it up. She rode her bicycle to and from work.


Cities, Jacobs believed, should be untidy, complex, and full of surprises. Good cities encourage social interaction at the street level. They favor foot traffic, bicycles, and public transit over cars. They get people talking to each other. Residential buildings should be low-rise and should have stoops and porches. Sidewalks and parks should have benches. Streets should be short and should wind around neighborhoods. Livable neighborhoods require mixed-use buildings—especially those with first-floor retail establishments and housing above. She saw how “eyes on the street” could make neighborhoods safe as well as supportive. She favored corner stores over big chains and liked newsstands and pocket parks where people can meet casually. Cities, she argued, should foster a mosaic of architectural styles and heights. And they should allow people from different income, ethnic, and racial groups to live in close proximity.


She was among the most articulate voices against “slum clearance,” high-rise development, highways carved through urban neighborhoods and big commercial projects.


Today, once again, America’s major cities—among them New York, Boston, Seattle, Houston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—are witnessing another major transformation, propelled not by the federal bulldozer this time, but by Wall Street and overseas financiers. In these cities’ downtowns, developers are erecting luxury high-rise mega-towers, justifying their greed by claiming that greater density will reduce suburban sprawl and improve environmental sustainability. And in working class neighborhoods, they are gobbling up small apartment buildings and storefronts, pushing out tenants and locally owned businesses, and replacing them with upscale residents and chic retail stores. Once again, community groups are challenging these projects, arguing—as Jacobs no doubt would have if she were still alive—that adding more expensive condos and apartments does not improve cities but simply gentrifies them for the wealthy, reducing the income and social diversity that makes urban life exciting and humane.


Jacobs would surely be disappointed in the current presidential campaign. None of the candidates—not even the former successful mayor of Burlington, Vermont has offered a vision of a new urban policy. The Dems have discussed their ideas for addressing crime and environmental protection (mostly in response to the Flint crisis, but also about climate change), but said little about housing, transportation, K-12 schools, or urban planning. Understandably, the GOP candidates completely ignored the problems facing cities. In the 2012 presidential election, big city voters cast 28 percent of all votes. Obama won 63 percent of the big city vote and slightly less than half of the suburbs outside big cities.


Jacobs grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Graduating from high school during the Depression, she decided to get a job rather than go to college. In 1934 she moved to New York, where she found work as a secretary in Greenwich Village. She sold a series of articles about different areas of the city—such as the flower market and the diamond district—to Vogue magazine, earning $40 for each piece at a time when she was making $12 a week as a secretary. In her spare time, she took courses at Columbia University’s School of General Studies in geology, zoology, law, political science, and economics.


Jacobs was self-taught, with no college degree or credential. She was unencumbered by planning orthodoxy, although she carefully read and thoroughly critiqued the major thinkers in the field—including Sir Patrick Geddes, Ebenezer Howard, Le Corbusier, and Lewis Mumford—who believed that high-rise towers surrounded by open spaces reflected the best combination of technology, efficiency, and modernism. Likewise, she condemned the execution of these ideas by Moses and other government planners who arrogantly believed that their own expertise trumped the day-to-day experiences of the people whose lives were affected by their decisions.


Often overlooked is Jacobs’ influence on community organizing. Most histories of community organizing trace its origins and evolution to the settlement houses of the Progressive Era, to Saul Alinsky’s efforts (starting in the late 1930s in Chicago), to adapt labor organizing strategies to community problems, and to the tactical creativity of the civil rights movement. But Jacobs’ activist work showed people around the country that they could fight the urban renewal bulldozer—and win. Eventually mayors and planning agencies began to rethink the bulldozer approach to urban renaissance. In 1974 President Richard Nixon canceled the urban renewal program.


The upsurge of neighborhood organizing that emerged in the 1960s and 1970s was triggered by the initial battles against urban renewal, or what some critics called “Negro removal.” By leading the fight in New York City, the nation’s largest city and media center, Jacobs inspired people to organize to stop the destruction of their communities and to find more community-friendly ways to achieve such goals as improving housing. They won some battles and lost others, but many of them persisted to gain increasing influence over plans by city governments and private developers for their neighborhoods.


Out of this cauldron emerged new leaders, new organizations and new issues—such as the fight over bank redlining, tenants rights and rent control, neighborhood crime, environmental racism and underfunded schools. Some groups that were founded to protest against top-down plans began thinking about what they were for. Hundreds of community development corporations emerged out of these efforts. National networks of community organizations, such as ACORN, the Industrial Areas Foundation, PICO, and National Peoples Action, and thousands of other independent community organizing groups, unwittingly built on Jacobs’ efforts.


Jacobs also paved the way for what became known as “advocacy planning.” Starting in the 1960s, a handful of urban planners and architects chose to side with residents of low-income urban neighborhoods against the power of city redevelopment agencies and their business allies that pushed for highways, luxury housing, expansion of institutions such as hospitals and universities, corporate-sponsored mega projects, and government subsidies for sports complexes and convention centers. Based in universities or in small nonprofit firms, advocate planners played an important role in battles over development in most major cities. They provided technical skills (and sometimes political advice) for community groups engaged in trench warfare against displacement and gentrification.


At first isolated within the profession, advocate planners became enough of a force to have a serious impact on urban planning education. These activist planners worked for consulting firms (such as Urban Planning Aid), community groups, and university planning departments (such as Pratt Institute’s Center for Community and Environmental Development, or PICCED), and as advocates for the poor within municipal planning agencies and, as recounted in Norm Krumholz and Pierre Clavel’s book, Reinventing Cities: Equity Planners Tell Their Stories (1994) for progressive neighborhood-oriented mayors.


Although many developers and elected officials still favor the top-down approach, most planners and architects have absorbed Jacobs’ lessons. One of Jacobs’ most prominent heirs is Brad Lander, currently a member of the New York City Council and a leading voice for progressive labor, environmental, housing, and development policies, including inclusionary zoning and municipal minimum wages. Prior to his election to the council seat from Brooklyn, Lander was both a community organizer and an advocate planner. He served for a decade as executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee (a Brooklyn- and community-based nonprofit organization that develops and manages affordable housing and organizes residents around planning issues), then served as director of the Pratt Center for Community Development (formerly PICCED), working with community groups across the city to challenge the downtown business and developer agenda.


A fierce critic of Moses’ efforts to decimate New York neighborhoods, Jacobs was equally opposed to President Lyndon B. Johnson’s plans to destroy Vietnamese villages. Always an activist, she marched in anti-war rallies. In 1968 Jacobs moved with her husband and children from New York City to Toronto, triggered by her anti-war sentiments. She didn’t want their two draft-age sons to have to go to Vietnam.


She had a profound influence on city planning and community activism in her adopted country. There, too, she battled with powerful forces who pushed for highways over public transit, and large scale projects over people-oriented neighborhoods. As she did in the U.S., she helped lead the fight to preserve neighborhoods and stop expressways, including the proposed Spadina Expressway that would have cut right through the heart of her own Annex neighborhood (where she lived until her death in a three-story brick building) as well as parts of downtown.


Soon after moving to Toronto, she wrote a newspaper article critical of city planners for their plans to “Los Angelize” Toronto, which she described as “the most hopeful and healthy city in North America, still unmangled, still with options.” It is difficult to know how much of Canada’s success in creating more humane cities is due to Jacobs’ influence, but many Canadian politicians, planners and advocates give her credit.


One unfortunate side effect of the battle against urban renewal in the United States was a knee-jerk opposition to government efforts to improve cities, a sentiment that lingers on. We see this in the growing antagonism to the use of eminent domain. Rather than see it as a tool that could be wielded for good or evil—depending on whether a city regime is progressive, liberal or conservative—many people in the U.S. view the tool itself as the enemy. In Richmond, California, for example, a progressive city council—backed by activist community groups and unions—have sought to use eminent domain to fight Wall Street’s predatory practices by purchasing “underwater” mortgages and selling them back to homeowners for their fair market value instead of allowing absentee investors to foreclose their homes.


Jacobs wrote several other books—including The Economy of Cities (1969), and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984)—but none of them had the influence of Death and Life, which eventually became required reading in planning, architecture, and urban studies programs. Advocates of “smart growth” and “new urbanism” today claim Jacobs’ mantle, although she would no doubt dispute some of their ideas and, in particular, criticize the failure of these approaches to make room for poor and working-class residents.

Hailed for her visionary writing and activism, Jacobs refused to accept sainthood. She turned down honorary degrees from more than 30 institutions. She always gave credit to the ordinary people on the front lines of the battle over the future of their cities.


Jacobs—who died in Toronto on April 25, 2006—was a true “public intellectual” who put her ideas into practice. She loved cities and urban neighborhoods. She was fearless and feisty. She was a moralist, who believed that people have a responsibility to the greater good, and that societies and cities exist to bring out the best in people.


A version of this article originally appeared in the Huffington Post, and is an update to an article written for Shelterforce written in 2006 titled: “Jane Jacobs’ Radical Legacy.”

Related Articles

  • A pyramid-shaped building, mostly white but blue at the top. In front of it is a tall sign that reads "Memphis" in capital letters, with a guitar standing in for the letter I. In front of that is a trestle of brownish metal, and crossing the view diagonally are five parallel power lines.

    What Do Residents Think of Community Development Organizations?

    May 7, 2024

    Research explores residents' experiences with and observations about community development organizations in four cities.

  • A Catalyst for Change in Oakland: Annette Miller

    March 20, 2024

    Community organizer Annette Miller has turned personal tragedy into a force for good. This video is part of Shelterforce’s Women of Color on the Front Lines series.

  • A sign on a brick wall advising drivers of a steep hill. The sign is all-caps black lettering on a white background.

    How ‘Tenant Stewards’ Are Using TOPA to Form a Co-op

    January 26, 2024

    Organized by a pandemic-era mutual aid group, this housing cooperative is taking advantage of D.C.’s pioneering Tenant Opportunity to Purchase Act. But the pressure of paying back a loan with mounting interest could stymie the group's plans to provide affordable housing.