Jane Jacobs,(May 4, 1916 - April 25, 2006) was an American-Canadian writer and activist with primary interest in communities and urban planning and decay. She is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States. The book has been credited with reaching beyond planning issues to influence the spirit of the times.
Along with her well-known printed works, Jacobs is equally well known for organizing grassroots efforts to block urban-renewal projects that would have destroyed local neighborhoods. She was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and after moving to Canada in 1968, equally influential in canceling the Spadina Expressway and the associated network of highways under construction.
Jane Butzner was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the daughter of a doctor and a former teacher and nurse, who were Protestant in a heavily Roman Catholic town. After graduating from Scranton's Central High School, she took an unpaid position as the assistant to the women's page editor at the Scranton Tribune. A year later, in the middle of the Great Depression, she left Scranton for New York City.
During her first several years in the city, Jacobs held a variety of jobs, working mainly as a stenographer and freelance writer, often writing about working districts in the city. These experiences, she later said, "... gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like." Her first job was for a trade magazine, first as a secretary, then as an editor. She also sold articles to the Sunday Herald Tribune. She then became a feature writer for the Office of War Information. While working there she met an architect named Robert Hyde Jacobs whom she married in 1944. Together they had two sons, James and Ned, and a daughter, Burgin.
She studied at Columbia University's School of General Studies for two years, taking courses in geology, zoology, law, political science, and economics. About the freedom to study her wide-ranging interests, she said:" For the first time I liked school and for the first time I made good marks. This was almost my undoing because after I had garnered, statistically, a certain number of credits I became the property of Barnard College at Columbia, and once I was the property of Barnard I had to take, it seemed, what Barnard wanted me to take, not what I wanted to learn. Fortunately my high-school marks had been so bad that Barnard decided I could not belong to it and I was therefore allowed to continue getting an education."
Opposing expressways and supporting neighborhoods were common themes in her life. In 1962, she was the chairperson of the "Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway", when the downtown expressway plan was killed. She was again involved in stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway and was arrested during a demonstration on April 10, 1968. Jacobs opposed Robert Moses, who had already forced through the Cross-Bronx Expressway and other roadways against neighborhood opposition. A late 1990s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary series on New York's history devoted a full hour of its fourteen hours to the battle between Moses and Jacobs, although Robert Caro's highly critical biography of Moses, The Power Broker, gives only passing mention to this event, despite Jacobs's strong influence on Caro.
In 1968, Jacobs moved to Toronto, where she lived until her death. She decided to leave the United States in part because of her objection to the Vietnam War and worry about the fate of her two draft-age sons. She and her husband chose Toronto because it was pleasant and offered employment opportunities.
She quickly became a leading figure in her new city and helped stop the proposed Spadina Expressway. A frequent theme of her work was to ask whether we are building cities for people or for cars. She was arrested twice during demonstrations. She also had considerable influence on the regeneration of the St. Lawrence neighborhood, a housing project regarded as a major success. She became a Canadian citizen in 1974, and she later told writer James Howard Kunstler that dual citizenship was not possible at the time, implying that her US citizenship was lost.
In 1980, she offered an urbanistic perspective on Quebec's sovereignty in her book The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Separation. Jacobs was an advocate of a Province of Toronto to separate the city proper from Ontario. Jacobs said, "Cities, to thrive in the 21st century, must separate themselves politically from their surrounding areas."
She was selected to be an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her seminal writings and thought-provoking commentaries on urban development. The Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association awarded her its Outstanding Lifetime Contribution award in 2002. In 1997, the City of Toronto sponsored a conference titled "Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter", which led to a book by the same name. At the end of the conference, the Jane Jacobs Prize was created. It includes an annual stipend of $5,000 for three years to be given to "celebrate Toronto's original, unsung heroes - by seeking out citizens who are engaged in activities that contribute to the city's vitality".
Jacobs never shied away from expressing her political support for specific candidates. She opposed the 1997 amalgamation of the cities of Metro Toronto, fearing that individual neighborhoods would have less power with the new structure. She backed an ecologist, Tooker Gomberg, who lost Toronto's 2000 mayoralty race, and was an adviser to David Miller's successful mayoral campaign in 2003, at a time when he was seen as a longshot. During the mayoral campaign, Jacobs helped lobby against the construction of a bridge to join the city's waterfront to Toronto City Center Airport (TCCA). Following the election, Toronto City Council's earlier decision to approve the bridge was reversed and bridge construction project was stopped. TCCA did upgrade the ferry service and the airport is still in operation as of 2011.
Jacobs was also active in a fight against a plan of Royal St. George's College (an established school very close to Jacobs' long-time residence in Toronto's Annex district) to reconfigure its facilities. Jacobs suggested not only that the redesign be stopped but also the school be forced from the neighborhood entirely. Although Toronto council initially rejected the school's plans, the decision was later reversed - and the project was given the go-ahead by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) when opponents failed to produce credible witnesses and tried to withdraw from the case during the hearing.
She died in Toronto Western Hospital aged 89, on April 25, 2006, apparently of a stroke. She was survived by a brother, James Butzner; her two sons, James and Ned, and a daughter, Burgin Jacobs; by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Upon her death her family's statement noted:" What's important is not that she died but that she lived, and that her life's work has greatly influenced the way we think. Please remember her by reading her books and implementing her ideas.
Jacobs was not professionally trained in urban planning; her ideas were developed through personal experience and observation.
The planners and developers that she fought in order to preserve West Greenwich Village were among those who initially criticised her ideas. Robert Moses has generally been identified as her archrival during this period. Since then, Jacobs' ideas have been analysed many times, often in regards to the outcomes that their influences have produced.
In places like West Greenwich Village, the factors that she argued would maintain economic and cultural diversity have instead led to gentrification and some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Arguably, her own white-collar family's conversion of an old candy shop into a home was indicative of the gentrifying trend that would continue under the influence of Jacob's ideas.
However, gentrification was also caused by "the completely unexpected influx of affluent residents back into the inner city". The extent to which her ideas facilitated this phenomenon was at the time unimaginable. For example, she advocated the preservation of older buildings specifically because their lack of economic value made them affordable for poor people. In this respect, she saw them as "guarantors of social diversity" (Klemek, 2011:76). That many of these older structures have increased in economic value solely due to their age was implausible in 1961. Issues of gentrification have dominated criticism of Jane Jacobs' planning ideas. But her concepts have also been criticised more broadly. For example, although her ideas of planning were praised at times as "universal", they were criticized as inapplicable when a city grows from one million to ten million (as has happened many times in the Third World). Such arguments suggest that the ideas apply only to cities with similar issues to that of New York, where Jacobs developed many of her ideas.
In respect to Third World cities, her ideas have been criticized for not addressing problems of scale, or explaining how infrastructure should be built. Perhaps her support of bottom-up and small-scale development initiatives would indicate that all urban areas are different and require individualized initiatives, as opposed to major projects of urban renewal.