Jane Jacobs


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American city planner and critic. Believing cities provide the foundation for civilization, she made her name with The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a sustained attack on the ‘urban renewal’ being promoted by architects and centralized agencies, arguing that such policies were killing the living organism that was the city, and demanding a new respect for self-generating urban forces to create social and economic diversity and well-being. She began her career as a critic with Architectural Forum in 1952, and her realization that the orthodoxies of CIAM and the Athens Charter (e.g. zoning and a free-for-all for motor-cars), which had permeated Government and professional circles, were strangling cities and ruining their diversity. She contributed an important chapter to The Exploding Metropolis (1958) in which she argued that ‘Downtown is for People’ at a time when traditional urban centres were dying. Her studies convinced her that when the principles advocated by Le Corbusier and Ebenezer Howard were applied (as they almost invariably were), they not only failed to stop decay, but actually made matters worse, causing immense social and economic problems as well. Drabness and uniformity were imposed where once there was charm and diversity. She rightly saw that cities were far more complex, like living organisms, than the simplistic notions of planners and architects would allow, and she advocated that the forces advancing social and economic diversity should be encouraged rather than destroyed. Claiming to investigate the ‘real life’ of the city (which she said orthodox planners ignored), she illustrated her points with many real case-histor-ies, pointing out that high density was not necessarily the same thing as overcrowding, and drawing attention to why certain areas were pleasant to live and work in, while others were not.

In her The Economy of Cities (1969) she emphasized the manufacturing and trade side of cities, and showed how they helped the development of rural areas, and how some cities flourished and others stagnated. Again she emphasized the importance of diversity, stressing that economic well-being rests with the many small, innovative, diverse businesses rather than with grand conglomerations and monopolies.

While her work became accepted and widely read, she herself complained that very little had changed and that the same mistakes were being ‘compulsively repeated’, not least because of the application of ‘urban studies’ and the use of myriad statistics to justify the same old panaceas, which were nothing of the sort. However, she undoubtedly encouraged the conservation movement, and in time many of her heretical ideas were adopted, despite vitriolic attacks on her by Banham and others.

J. Jacobs (1961, 1969, 1984, 1992, 1996)

Subjects: Architecture.

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