Jane Jacobs, a Canadian journalist, author, and a fierce activist, was one of the most monumental ornaments in the shaping of urban studies, sociology and economics. With her lack of education in the field of urban planning offering a fresh perspective, one somewhat controversial at that time has played an essential role in making urban planners and designers more aware of the side of the people, further leading to the creation of more resident-friendly cities. A person having an avid understanding of residents in a town, she actively fought for the right, against all the projects that seemed not to take the public under consideration. She organised grassroots protests and efforts to protect communities from ‘urban renewal’ or ‘slum clearance’ projects.
An interesting incident that is a clear proof of the controversial, yet correct stance of Jacobs is the little work experience that she shared with Edmund Bacon. She was assigned to cover the development, being designed by Edmund Bacon, in Philadelphia; on an urban scale. While all of her editors expected it to be a smooth and positive story, it turned out to be quite the opposite. She was vehemently against Bacon’s project owing to the lack of concern being devoted towards the poor African Americans suffering under that damage. Talking further with Bacon, trying to understand through his examples of ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, Jane conceived that ‘development’ either meant or led to the end of community life on the street. This made Jacobs question and wonder about the 1950s consensus on Urban planning.
Commemorating this strong activist who was one of the very few with the unfiltered public interest at heart, here are ten lesser-known facts about the sensation that is Jane Jacobs.
1. HER LOVE FOR WRITING
In the duration of her work towards Urban planning and the city-life, Jane Jacobs has written multiple books on economics, urban planning and the role of residents in cities; a few of them being ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, ‘Dark Age Ahead’, ‘The Nature of Economics’, ‘Systems of Survival’ etc. Out of all her books, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’ is one of the most accepted and credited books, giving a more in-depth insight into the beliefs of Jane Jacobs and a small window into her life.
2. HER INTENSE ATTACHMENT TO THE LOCAL CHAOS OF A CITY
“You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
A quote often used by urban planners to justify the collateral damage that accompanied a development or a redevelopment project of a city, Jane was vehemently against this construct. She believed that the very idea of comparing people with eggs and coming up with a solution that leaves them in despair is unfair and disgraceful, for the design of any part of a city should lead to people being better off, post it. Constantly favouring local wisdom and community visions over the grandiose of planners, she lay great emphasis on the importance of the social life and good chaos created by the locals of a city, in the form of small social hubs, roadside neighbourhood stores, sidewalks, stoops, laundries, mailbox areas, etc. Continually maintaining the belief that these elements of a city are ‘indispensable centres of community activity’ and that planned, outside, vacant spaces lead to the opposite of that.
3. A WRITER WITH A DIFFERENT PEN STYLE
Despite having written various books, each leading to be more credited than the former, the writing style of Jane Jacobs always stayed unique. The information she imparted was associative and could easily be related to, by those who knew the architecture language and even those who did not. Her goal was never to achieve or exude certain expertise but produce a fresh and lively sense out of the scientific and social ideas of humans and their spaces. With a significantly different concept of growth, her writing touched the heart more than the nerves in the brain.
4. BELIEVED IN THE STRENGTH OF OBSERVATION AND STAYED TRUE TO IT
An avid believer in the idea of observing and participating, Jacobs never ‘prescribed’ change and continuously looked for public input to arrive at the right point. Her idea of the success of something relied solely on observation, learning about street life and the activity of neighbouring areas, convinced that there is something to be observed about all individual threads in the intricate web making up an urban fabric.
5. ONE OF THE FIRST PEOPLE TO EXHIBIT INTEREST AND BELIEF IN ‘MIXED USE PLANNING’
The idea of mixed-use (combining residential, commercial, and “industrial” or workplace in the same neighbourhood), earlier construed as a creator of chaos, Jane was one of the first to suggest and fight for the idea of mixed-use development, with the hypothesis that it is something that the people associated with a lot more.
6. CREATED A VALID ANALOGY BETWEEN THE THEN UPCOMING IDEA OF PLANNING WITH THAT OF GENERATION CHANGE
“People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists—they are always wrong. It is not going to go the same; here comes a generation or two that can’t stand what the previous generations did.” Using these words, Jane tried to explain why the planning techniques being adopted by the urban planners were vastly inaccurate. She believed that the growing popularity of New Urbanism had less to do with its rationality and more with the typical behaviour of a new generation to disregard the old and be ruthless with it.
7. SHE WAS ONCE A PROFESSIONAL PROPAGANDIST
After fighting for the right of the American public to be heard in the constitution and for the protection of the rights of the minority factions, Jane Jacobs went on to work for the U.S. government, at the U.S. Office of War Information. There, she wrote articles about the industry, politics, history and the intricacies of the foreign press.
8. ARDENT LOVE FOR THE LAYERS OF DEMOCRACY
Other than Urban life, the most significant and most exciting theme, for Jane, was the fragility of democracy and the difficulties that it entailed. Quoted from her bestseller, “When we deal with cities, we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense. Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, everybody creates them.” She believed that the success of a city was a manifestation of its democratic ideals and the failure of one could directly be attached with democratic losses like over specialisation, cultural drift, tyranny, atrophy, etc. She even converted democratic ideals into design policies, in her book, ‘Death and Life’.
9. HER IDEALS WERE ACCEPTED SO WIDELY THAT THEY ARE NOW NORMS
In the words of a New York-based blog article, “A lot of the ideals of Jane Jacobs are a dense, meticulously constructed attack on the city planning orthodoxies of the day.” The effect of these attacks was positive enough to let go of these orthodox activities to such an extent that, today, it reads as almost polemic. Her ideas of the diverse use of scales, people and buildings together are considered the norms and given conditions for a well-designed city now, showing significant progress on her part.
10. JANE JACOBS WAS NOT AGAINST BIG BUILDINGS
Despite everything that has been said, it can still be accepted that Jane was not against a prominent structure, in general. Her hatred lied towards stand-alone, single-use megastructures that took away from the public. Big buildings, in the presence of other structures, balancing its size with a varied sense of scale is something she vouched for.