Jane Jacobs: Mother of Place

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) began life in a provincial American town and ended up one of the most important voices of our time in urbanism, revolutionising the way we look at, and live in, cities.

She began her working life as a freelance writer for publications ranging from the Sunday Herald Tribune to Vogue. Settling in New York’s Greenwich Village during the Great Depression, Jane enrolled in General Studies at Columbia University, continuing to write and eventually joining the staff of Architectural Forum magazine. She married, had kids, stayed in the Village.

Gradually her thinking and writing on cities began to have an impact beyond her immediate readership. She wrote about the lack of concern for poor African American communities in designed urban developments, and spoke out on the impact of ‘revitalization’ in East Harlem urging her audience to ‘respect – in the deepest sense – strips of chaos that have a weird wisdom of their own not yet encompassed in our concept of urban order.’

Her authority was born out of her grassroots activism, saving neighbourhoods such as New York’s Greenwich village from the ‘progress’ of slum clearance and expressways, as much as her autodidact scholarship on urban planning. Jacobs advocated for ‘density done well’ and in her writing and lectures constantly championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building. She saw cities as integrated systems with their own logic and dynamism that changed over time, according to how they were used. Jane wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, retail design and self-organization while promoting higher density, short blocks, local economies and mixed uses.

A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighborhoods develop, Jacobs encouraged people to familiarise themselves with the places where they live, work, and play. She was also unafraid to speak up as a mother, using her writing to call out experts in the male dominated field of urban planning.

In her seminal work ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’, Jane Jacobs introduced the terms ‘social capital’, mixed primary uses’ and ‘eyes on the street’ – all of which still have currency. The work itself is now recognised as one of the most influential books in the history of urban planning. Yet on its release Jacobs was derided as a ‘housewife’ and ‘militant dame’.

The impact of Jane Jacobs's observation, activism, and writing is a legacy of ‘planning blueprints' for generations of architects, planners, politicians and activists to practice and the placing people, and their neighbourhoods, at the very centre of city planning and development.

Thank you, Jane Jacobs.

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Sydney, NSW 2000, Australia

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