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Born in 1916 and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in her teens Jacobs moved to New York City where she bought a small row house in West Greenwich Village, eventually met and married an architect, and raised her family. They remained in New York City until 1969 when, because of their opposition to the Vietnam War, they moved to Toronto, Canada. There Jacobs lived and wrote for the next several decades, a lively and major political presence until she died in 2006.
Jacobs was the consummate political activist. She not only treasured living in cities, but she also enjoyed puttering around with their politics. She took on the expressways in New York as well as the eminent ”power broker,” Robert Moses. In her writings as well as her everyday politics, she argued forcefully against high-rise apartment buildings as well as the public housing of New York City. In Toronto she worked in big and small ways on behalf of the city, here arguing for retaining locally owned stores, there for the construction of neighborhoods that contained mixed-use, medium-rise, and high pedestrian traffic areas.
In her classic work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961/1992), Jacobs provided a view of cities that was, at once, a scathing attack on modern city planning and a vision of how people in cities actually live. Despite her lack of a sociological pedigree, it also furnished a fundamentally sociological view of the city, echoes of which can be found in many contemporary writings not only about cities but also about modern society in general.
Like a good sociologist, she argued that the best way to understand the urban world was to view it at street level through the eyes and with the ears of its residents. Here one could observe the comings-and-goings of people, their everyday greetings to one another, social stuff that made up the everyday world of its residents.
Cities worked, they were made safe and livable, because of the life of people on and near the streets, she argued, not because of the great, looming designs of their developers or architects.
The neighborhood, not the precinct or the house or the apartment building, was the center and beehive of social activity in the city. It was here that people passed one another, shared hellos and goodbyes, and helped to shape a community with one another. Our human feelings of trust, of privacy, and of security in our urban surroundings, Jacobs argued, were grounded in these everyday occurrences.
An astute observer of city planning, Jacobs insisted that there should be mixed uses of buildings and enterprises. Cities should be constructed so there is a regular flow of people on the sidewalks; this means that the spaces of cities should be designed to take account of the different rhythms of people during the day.
Jacobs later expanded on her concerns by arguing that cities and their regions are the true basis of the modern economy. She insisted that nations were regarded by economists and other figures as the actors in the economy but this was purely an artifact of their measures. When studied closely, it was the cities and regions that proved to be essential to the vitality of modern economies.
- City & Community (2006) A retrospective on Jane Jacobs. 5 (3) (September).
- Jacobs, J. (1961/1992) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Random House, New York.