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Jane Jacobs and the Future of Architecture and City Planning

textWhat influences the character and development of a New York City neighborhood? Who decides which voices are heard in the face of urban renewal and expansion? How did one woman’s love for New York City empower communities and shift the future of architecture and city planning?

After a costly war and an economic collapse, mid-20th century architects embraced modernism. Sleek, shiny, anonymous high-rises were popping up on a well-ordered grid and giving New York a new look. But every time a new structure was built, communities and businesses were displaced. Eminent domain – the city’s process of seizing land and rebuilding on it for “public use” – was wrecking communities. Jane Jacobs was one of the first and most outspoken liberal opposers to these new ideas.

Jane Jacobs was not a trained architect nor city planner: she studied zoology and geology and didn’t finish college. But today, she’s seen as one of history’s most influential thinkers on the victories and failings of modern urban spaces.

Jacobs’ love for cities was her engine. She hadn’t planned to attend college at all. She was born in Scranton, PA and move to New York City during the Depression to live with her older sister in Brooklyn Heights. She worked at the Abraham and Strauss Department Store, and as a freelancer writing articles.

Each day, she got on the subway and chose a random stop to get off and look for another job. When she chose Christopher Street, she found a position in the West Village as a secretary for a candy company. She fell in love with Greenwich Village and moved to Hudson Street, where she’d live for the rest of her time in New York City.

Soon, Vogue Magazine bought a few of her articles for almost triple what she earned in one week as a secretary. Jacobs kept writing, about anything she could–the fur district, manhole covers, things in between–and she was soon published in the Herald, the Tribune, and Q Magazine. She attended Columbia University for 2 years, met her husband Robert Hyde Jacobs Jr. at a party in her apartment, and got a job as an editor at Architectural Forum, where she’d work for the next decade.

Jane Jacobs believed that City residents should have a say in the developments and changes being made in their neighborhoods. She wrote, spoke, and fought boldly against systems of power, often sparking controversies and holding unpopular opinions. In trying to protect the things she loved most about New York City, Jacobs became an activist by accident.

In 1960, political powerhouses Robert Moses and Carmine DeSapio planned to build an expressway through Washington Square Park. The Park, no landmarked nor protected by anyone in particular, was vulnerable to this demolition and Jane Jacobs stepped in. She organized, fought, and ultimately shut down the plans to build a road through the iconic Park.

With her publishing of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, Jacobs became even less popular. In it, she proposed radical new ideas for re-imagining the city. Where urban renewal was bulldozing slums and building massive sterile structures, Jacobs suggested the opposite. She saw “density” and crowded communities as an opportunity to empower local economies. She identified diversity as a major asset to city development. She proposed short blocks, varied buildings (variance in size, function, etc.), high density and dual-function districts.

Jacobs’ idea for “bottom-up community planning” rejecting the idea that a community needs experts to guide their development. Outside developers, she argued, have no way of truly understanding the community and its needs. Throughout the next 4 decades, Jacobs would publish 6 more books, expanding her focus to discussions on sociology, morality, and regional economics. Her 1961 treatise is regarded today as one of the most influential texts in its field.

Jacobs was arrested for “riot and criminal mischief” in 1968 after disrupting a public meeting about the building of an expressway straight through Lower Manhattan, which would’ve displaced hundreds of people. Jacobs was said to have ripped up the stenographer’s transcript. Some people close to Jacobs thought that her activism disrupted her writing career, but she did both until her final days.

Later that year (1968), she moved to Toronto to oppose the war and protect her two sons from the draft. As soon as she got there, she started fighting against urban renewal and eminent domain in that city. She lived in Toronto until she died in 2006, at age 89.

Jacobs’ then-radical ideas for city planning have inspired generations of architects, and therefore structures and cities, all over the world. Her passion for the character and diversity of New York City neighborhoods motivated her long career. Jacobs re-defined what is seen as advancement, innovation, and development in cities, and shifted the priorities of city planners in New York. Without her courage to challenge systems, her refusal to take no for an answer, and her relentless defense of neighborhoods   for decades, what might New York City look like today? If Jane Jacobs could redesign New York from scratch right now, what might it look like? Take a walk in the West Village with Jacobs’ philosophy in mind, and see if you can imagine why she loved it so much!

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