Jane Jacobs’s Genius

Jane Jacobs’s Genius

A tribute to Jane Jacobs’s extraordinary vision of urban life and her passionate care for people and places.


On the Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design website is a tribute to author and urban activist Jane Jacobs who died on April 25, nine days before her 90th birthday. Central to this organization’s international workshops on creating policeable places is the concept of “eyes on the street,” a term coined by Jacobs in the first of her nine books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). In the clear, accessible language that is one of Jacobs’s trademarks, “eyes on the street” illustrates how the safest streets have a multiplicity of uses–as many as possible–that draws many people for different purposes all day and evening. “Eyes”–observing the organic processes of our lives within complex systems–were the lenses through which her passionate care for people and place were magnified by her genius.

The application of “eyes on the street” in police training sessions is just one extraordinary example of the breadth and depth of Jacobs’s influence around the world. The same of course can be said for the real estate developers who use the term “mixed-use,” another of Jacobs’s contributions to our vocabulary and understanding of placemaking.

So ingrained in the culture have these concepts now become, one can assume that few police or others who use these terms so freely have knowledge of where the ideas came from.

That was fine with Jacobs, who cared little for the credit but a lot for the utility of her ideas.

Jacobs’s teachings are as complex as the complexity she discovered in vibrant cities. Understanding about anything, she argued, comes only through direct observation and persistent inquiry. Her inclusive spirit emphasized the value of all participants and gave greater weight to the informed citizen than the credentialed expert. This simple truth, which she described once as “trusting the local,” assists in preventing inauthentic if not dangerous actions in our urban ecologies.

This process of inquiry may be her greatest legacy, particularly meaningful in our culture of immediacy with its expectation of quick answers, detailed plans, clear solutions, fashionable designs–something final. Clearly, she was an advocate of organic cities, a protector of authentic places, a fierce opponent of grand plans for highways at the expense of mass transit, a promoter of modest accretions to existing places instead of over-designed new ones, a proponent of economically and ethnically mixed neighborhoods, an astute observer of how economies work in contradiction to the theories of how they work and a keen observer of how to learn from the environment instead of undermining it.

Jacobs was a woman of infinite humility, compassion, warmth and generosity of spirit. She reveled in challenging conversation with thoughtful people, listened carefully to citizen testimony at public hearings, never resisted the opportunity to stand up to power and wished only for people to continue the dialogue she started, not duplicate her words. It took a while but she came to understand the breadth of her influence. Yet, she was troubled by people who misapplied her thinking or absorbed only part of the melody and not the full song. Crime prevention, she might have argued, should ultimately be about the way we engage with all systems of our environment, not just the urban, but our physical, social and economic environments as one interconnected system.

Jacobs’s thought and writing comprise a resounding symphony of lessons and ideas; they compose a life’s work about economic, social and environmental justice. The real crime now would be to reduce her thinking to some single note about cities rather than orchestrate a new pedagogy, so artfully begun through her inquiries.

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