Free Minds & Free Markets

City Views

Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy.

Today, Jane Jacobs is revered as North America's great expert on cities and the way they work. But 40 years ago, when her masterpiece The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published, she was assaulting -- and shattering -- the fundamental tenets of urban planning.

That book was part literature, part journalism, and part sociology; it looked at cities from the sidewalks and street-corners up, not from the Ivory Tower down. Healthy cities, Jacobs argued, are organic, messy, spontaneous, and serendipitous. They thrive on economic, architectural, and human diversity, on dense populations and mixed land uses -- not on orderly redevelopment plans that replaced whole neighborhoods with concrete office parks and plazas in the name of slum clearance or city beautification.

Jacobs has no professional training and only a high school diploma. But in the years since Death and Life was published, her "radical" ideas about what makes cities livable have become popular -- in some quarters, near gospel. To some extent, this was driven by Jacobs' own civic activism, fighting to protect her New York neighborhood against the city planners' designs.

Jacobs' subsequent books have been just as revolutionary, if not always as widely read. The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) laid out new ideas about urban economics, stressing the importance of dynamic, open-ended growth. Systems of Survival (1992) delved into political philosophy, while last year's The Nature of Economies showed some of the ways economics follows the same principles that govern nature. She has also written a children's book and a book on Quebeçois separatism, and has edited the memoirs of her great-aunt, a schoolteacher in early 20th century Alaska.

Jacobs, who turns 85 this year, is as sharp as ever. She has lived in Toronto's bustling Annex neighborhood since 1968, when she and her late husband moved there from New York City so their sons wouldn't be drafted during the Vietnam War. She's a Canadian citizen, but she was born in the hard-coal town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Bill Steigerwald, an associate editor and columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, interviewed her in mid-March by phone.

Reason: What should a city be like?

Jane Jacobs: It should be like itself. Every city has differences, from its history, from its site, and so on. These are important. One of the most dismal things is when you go to a city and it's like 12 others you've seen. That's not interesting, and it's not really truthful.

Reason: Unlike American cities, Canadian cities have not been destroyed by the experts and the planners, have they?

Jacobs: Well, they've had some bad things happen to them. They had some terrible housing projects built in Toronto, although we learned later how to do it right.

That's mostly true about Canadian cities, but it's not all peaches and cream. It's really surprising how few creative, important cities Canada has for its size, its population, and its great human potential and attributes. There's a whole region of Canada, the Atlantic Provinces, that has a lot of pleasant little places but doesn't have one single really significant creative city. And the whole area is very poor as a consequence. It would be like a Third World country, that whole area, if it wasn't getting transfer payments and grants of various kinds from the rest of Canada.

Reason: But Canada didn't have the urban renewal problem that America did?

Jacobs: It had a little of it. It also had what Marshall McLuhan called "an early warning system." Urban renewal came to America earlier, so Canada had the advantage of seeing what the mistakes were and could be cautious. Canada had an urban renewal agency for a while, and it did just as badly as the one in the U.S. But it didn't last long, because as soon as the Canadian government saw what a mess it was making, how many fights it was causing, and how much opposition was arising, it just demolished the whole department.

That was the difference. All these troubles were becoming recognized in the U.S., but the government there didn't seem to be able to think, "This is a mistake. Out with it."

Reason: I know some businesspeople begged you to come to Pittsburgh and help fight a big City Hall redevelopment project that would have wiped out two city streets downtown. [See "Death by Wrecking Ball," June 2000.] The huge project has ended, so it's sort of a happy ending. But I'm wondering if, in a general sense, you think the people who control cities have learned the lessons of the '60s?

Jacobs: In that case, they certainly hadn't. That attitude -- that you can sacrifice small things, young things, and a diversity of things for some great big success -- is sad. That's the kind of attitude that killed Pittsburgh as an innovator.

Reason: And it comes from people who either have the power or the money or both to have their way?

Jacobs: Well, they have their way with the powers of eminent domain, government powers that were intended for things like schools and roads and public things, and are used instead for the benefit of private organizations and individuals.

That's one of the worst things about urban renewal. It introduced that idea that you could use those government powers to benefit private organizations. The courts never have given the kind of overview to this that they should. The time it went to the Supreme Court, back in the 1950s, the decision was that to make a place beautiful or more orderly or helpful, government could do what it pleased with eminent domain. That just left the door open. As one New York state official said at the time, "If Macy's wants to condemn Gimbel's, it can do it if Moses gives the word."

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