This year marks the centennial of Jane Jacobs’s birth. Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, changed the way the world views cities. It has been translated into multiple languages and is considered one of the most influential books about cities in the 20th century. It introduced a new way of thinking about planning for cities at the high point of the demolition-derby days of urban renewal. The importance of street life, local plans, “eyes on the street,” mixed use, old buildings, transit, neighborhoods, diversity, and appropriate density are all mainstream ideas in urban design and planning today. They were revolutionary when Jacobs introduced them more than a half-century ago.
Put down for not having a planning degree, let alone a college degree, Jacobs challenged “credentialism” in the same way as Ralph Nader, Betty Friedan, Rachel Carson, and Marshall McLuhan. Even though before her book was published, Jacobs had been writing articles about areas of the city for Vogue and architectural criticism for Architectural Forum, she was often referred to as “just a housewife.” It is frequently the outsiders of a field, often journalists, who wind up changing that field. “This is the role of the great amateurs: to see clearly the issues that academic specialists cannot see because they are limited by the blinders of their institutions and their disciplines,” observed Canadian journalist Robert Fulford in The New York Times in 1992.
The consummate urban advocate, Jacobs is probably best known for helping defeat several projects promoted by New York City’s planning czar Robert Moses, such as the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have wiped out SoHo, Chinatown, and much of Greenwich Village. She didn’t hesitate to tell truth to power either in her writing or street protests. Above all, however, she considered herself a writer. Jacobs became world-famous for all of her seven books and is often referred to as the most significant urban thinker of the last century.
But Jacobs didn’t for one moment think her books had as big an impact as was often said. In the 1993 introduction to the Modern Library edition of Death and Life, she questioned the widespread claim that her book changed the urban-development field. Interestingly, she divided the world into foot people and car people. For foot people, she agreed, the book gave “legitimacy to what they already knew themselves. Experts of the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued. They were deemed old fashioned and selfish—troublesome sand in the wheels of progress.” As Jacobs put it:
It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect “influence” than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had an influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.