By Anthony Flint — If cities are the greenest form of human settlement that we could possibly aspire to, Jane Jacobs left us the owner’s manual for how to build them.
Fifty years ago this month, Random House published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an extraordinary book in which Jacobs laid out the principles for creating a healthy city. The blocks must be at a human scale, she said. There must be a diversity of activities to keep eyes on the street. The focus of the economy — of everything — should be local, typified by Greenwich Village, the Manhattan neighborhood where she chose to live.
A half-century later, the concepts of mixed-use, moderately dense, walkable urban environments are uniformly embraced by the planning professions, and by the movements of New Urbanism and smart growth. Yet the legacy of Jane Jacobs and this remarkable treatise is decidedly mixed. Today, she is invoked in campaigns to stop the very kind of urban development she advocated.
The story of how Jacobs came to write Death and Life reads like a movie script. A housewife from Scranton with no college degree, she came to New York City, fell in love with its old neighborhoods, and worked her way from secretary to editor and writer at several magazines. She was content in her life on Hudson Street until she learned of a plan by New York’s master builder, Robert Moses, to put a roadway through Washington Square Park, where she took her children.
The project struck her as exactly the opposite of what the city needed, and as Jacobs began to look around, she saw many other similar examples. It was the heyday of “urban renewal,” but cities, she felt, were being ravaged by planners’ devotion to the smooth flow of traffic and utopian visions for how people should live that were divorced from reality. [Read the full article…]