2011 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In this time, Jacobs has gone from an architectural writer and thorn in the side of Robert Moses to god-like status. She has even been called Saint Jane and the Urban Goddess by many of her fans and followers.
This adulation is fitting for a woman who—more than anybody else—changed the course of urban planning in the second half of the 20th century. However, it has also had some unhealthy side effects. In many ways, the ideas and writings of Jane Jacobs have become victims of their own success. Her nuanced observations have turned into a series of misunderstood and misapplied slogans. Her in-depth critiques have been turned into mirrors reflecting the positions of NIMBY’s and developers alike.
As the uncritical veneration of Jane Jacobs has reached new heights in recent years while attention has returned to city cores, the publication of Reconsidering Jane Jacobs is timely. The book, published by the American Planning Association, and edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, aims to give such adulation pause. Its goal is to remind readers of the full range and complexity of Jacobs’ work. It provides thoughtful critiques and commentary of the consequences of her ideas on cities today. The book explores Jacobs’ life and influences from multiple perspectives. Contributors include a wide range of urbanists, planners, and scholars. These includes Thomas Campanella, Jill M. Grant, Richard Harris, Nathan Cherry, Peter Laurence, Jane M. Jacobs, among others.
Reconsidering Jane Jacobs goes beyond a simple reconsideration. Indeed it spends little time looking at her actual work. The first half of the book contains three essays that offer biographical background and literary analyses of Jacobs’ work. The second half contains another three essays that look at and critique the impact this work has had.
Inserted between the chapter are international perspectives that illustrate how Jacobs’s writing is considered beyond the (North) American cities that her writing focused on. By the end of the book, we have new insights on her ideas from places such as Australia, Buenos Aires, the Netherlands, Abu Dhabi, and China. These international perspectives shed new light on how Jacobs’ ideas can—or can’t—be applied to cities. They give us in North America new perspectives by which to consider her work.
While I didn’t agree with every essay in the book, each point put forward by it’s contributors made me think and reflect on my own relationship with Jacobs and her ideas. The points that I disagreed with most helped me see her, not simply as a two dimensional mirror of my own preconceived notions, but as a diverse and dynamic three dimensional human being, warts and all. This has strengthened not only my understanding of her life and writing, but my appreciation of it.
Perhaps most importantly, this book reminds us that Jacobs never meant for her ideas to be used to blindly proscribe or protest how cities are planned. She spent much of her career reminding us of the power of observation. Rather than using her writing to justify codifying or controlling our urban environment, she tried to get us to become better listeners and enablers of authentic urbanism. As Max Page reminds us in his introduction, Jacobs opens Death and Life with a page entitled “Illustrations,” in which she wrote:
These scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen longer and think about what you see.
On the eve of the fifth annual Jane’s Walk occurring around the world, I think this is a perfect opportunity to take this advice to heart and not only reconsider Jane Jacobs, but to do so in your own cities.
Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, published by American Planning Association/Planners Press.
A version of this review was posted on May 5th on Jane’s Walk Phoenix:
In the spirit of Jacobs’ celebration of personal observation, I intentionally kept this review at a high level, not touching on any essays in particular. If you are looking for a more in-depth review, here are two that you should read:
- Planners and the Jane Jacobs Conundrum by Roberta Brandes Gratz (Planetizen)
- Iconoclasm and Iconolatry: A Review of Reconsidering Jane Jacobs and Proxy Wars: More on Reconsidering Jane Jacobs by Frank Gruber Huffing ton Post)
I was provided with a free advanced copy of this book by the APA for review purposes.