Jane Butzner Jacobs (born May 4, 1916) is a writer and activist born in the United States, but now residing in Canada. 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 America.
Jacobs was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. She studied at Columbia University in the 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 has stated:
- 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.1
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. In 1944, she married Robert Hyde Jacobs with whom she subsequently had two sons.
On March 25, 1952 Jacobs responded to Conrad E. Snow, chairman of the Loyalty Security Board in the United States Department of State. In her foreword to her answer she stated:
- ... The other threat to the security of our tradition, I believe, lies at home. It is the current fear of radical ideas and of people who propound them. I do not agree with the extremists of either the left or the right, but I think they should be allowed to speak and to publish, both because they themselves have, and ought to have, rights, and once their rights are gone, the rights of the rest of us are hardly safe...2
Opposing expressways, and supporting neighborhoods is a common theme in her life. In 1962 she was chairman 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 motorways against neighborhood opposition. A PBS documentary series on New York's history devoted a full hour of its four-hour length strictly to the battle between Moses and Jacobs.
In 1969 she moved to Toronto (where she still lives). She decided to leave the United States in part out of her objection to the Vietnam War and due to worry about the fate of her two draft age sons. She chose Toronto as she found it a pleasant city and its rapid growth meant plenty of work for her architect husband. She quickly became a leading figure in her new city and was involved in stopping the Spadina Expressway. A common theme of her work has been to question whether we are building cities for people or for cars. She has been arrested twice during demonstrations. (source Ideas that Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs). She also had considerable influence on the regeneration of the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, a housing project that is regarded as a great success.
Jacobs is an advocate of a Province of Toronto to separate the city proper from Ontario. Jacobs says, "Cities to thrive in the 21st century, must separate themselves politically from their surrounding areas."
In 1997 the City of Toronto sponsored a conference titled Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter, and 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." 
Jane Jacobs has spent her life studying cities. Her books include:
The Death and Life of Great American Cities is her single most influential book, and quite possibly the most influential US book on urban planning. Widely read by both planning professionals and the general public, the book is a strong critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s which, she claimed, destroyed communities and created isolated, unnatural urban spaces. Instead Jacobs advocated dense, mixed-use neighborhoods as found in traditional American cities.
Systems of Survival moves outside of the city, studying the moral underpinnings of work. As with her other work, she used an observational approach. This book is written as a platonic dialogue . It appears that she (as described by characters in her book) took newspaper clippings of moral judgements related to work, collected and sorted them to find that they fit two patterns of moral behaviour that were mutually exclusive. She calls these two patterns "Moral Syndrome A", or commercial moral syndrome and "Moral Syndrome B" or guardian moral syndrome. She claims that the commercial moral syndrome is applicable to business owners, scientists, farmers, and traders. Similarly, she claims that the guardian moral syndrome is applicable to government, charities, hunter-gatherers, and religious institutions. She also claims that these Moral Syndromes are fixed, and do not fluctuate over time.
It is important to stress that Jane Jacobs is providing a theory about the morality of work, and not all moral ideas. Moral ideas that are not included in her syndrome are applicable to both syndromes.
Jane Jacobs goes on to describe what happens when these two moral syndromes are mixed, showing the work underpinnings of the Mafia and communism, and what happens when New York Subway Police are paid bonuses here - reinterpreted slightly as a part of the larger analysis.
Criticism of Jane Jacobs
One of the recurring criticisms of Jacobs is that her work is impractical and does not reflect the reality of urban politics, which are often totally controlled by real estate developers and suburban politicians. A response to such critics is to point to the history of cities like New York City and Detroit, which were devastated in the 1960s and 1970s as suburban populations grew, took control of the politics of the surrounding region, and voted to starve cities to feed suburban sprawl, leaving burned-out city cores in deep debt. This fed the vicious cycle of more departures to the suburbs.
Audio and video
- 1 Ideas that Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs, published by The Ginger Press, Inc. Edited by Max Allen
- 2 Ibid. p. 170
Last updated: 08-17-2005 14:39:08
Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13