Jane Jacobs, who died on April 25 at the age of 89, revolutionized intellectual ideas about cities with her 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She had two messages: first, that the inner-city districts that urban planners had been clearing away were often not blighted slums but living, vital neighborhoods; and second, that urban planners really had no idea about how cities worked, so most of their plans did more harm than good.
While many praised her book, sociologist Herbert Gans warned that it would attract “the support of those who profit from the status quo, of the nostalgic who want to bring back the city and the society of the 18th and 19th centuries, and of the ultra-right-wing groups who oppose planning – and all government action – whether good or bad.” This is exactly what has happened.
Today, a new generation of planners read the first message in her book and become determined to impose the high-density, mixed-use, inner-city neighborhoods Jacobs favored on suburbs and small towns. One of her obituaries stated that she”questioned the sprawling suburbs that characterized urban planning, saying it was killing inner cities and discouraging the economic vitality that springs organically from neighborhoods.”
Meanwhile, libertarians embraced Jacobs for her dislike of planners, who she called “know-it-alls who have visions of how to transform the world and proceed to try to do it.” In retrospect, it is hard to decide whether Jacobs is a libertarian hero or a planning saint. She wrote eloquently in defense of a lifestyle that government planners were trying to destroy. But she also castigated, with much less personal knowledge, the suburbs and suburban lifestyles that today’s planners are trying to destroy.
In truth, Jacobs was simply an urban activist who received a lot of attention for being one of the first to say that the urban-renewal emperor had no clothes. Though covered in terms such as “New Urbanism” and “smart growth,” it still has no clothes today.