Date October 18, 2016
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A broader view of celebrated urbanist Jane Jacobs

Brown researchers gather uncollected writings, speeches and interviews to create a more comprehensive portrait of the writer who changed how we think about cities.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] —This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs, the celebrated and self-taught urbanist and writer. Samuel Zipp, associate professor of American studies and urban studies at Brown, says that among her most influential ideas was one that wouldn’t seem all that revolutionary in 2016 — that citizens themselves could have a hand in thinking about and shaping the cities in which they live.

Jacobs’ wide-ranging work — which encompasses writings, speeches and interviews on urbanism, economics, politics and ethics over seven decades — was often boiled down to a single book and one short timeframe in her seven-decade career as a writer, Zipp says. Aiming to provide a more complete picture of Jacobs, he and Nathan Storring, an urbanist and curator who earned his master’s in public humanities from the University's John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, launched a research project that gathered her short, uncollected works, including interviews and speeches, in one resource, titled “Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs.”

Here, the authors join forces to offer insights on their subject’s work and legacy.

Jane Jacobs is best known for “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” published in 1961. What did you aim to capture in researching her uncollected works?

We hoped to see Jacobs whole. She wrote about a vast variety of subjects between the 1930s, when she moved to New York City from Scranton, Pennsylvania, at age 18 to be a writer, and the 2000s, when she gave her last speeches. She began by writing about cities — as early as 1936 she was writing short profiles of city industries for Vogue — but her life’s work was probably an inquiry into those larger forces that made for vibrant cities — vibrant economies.

Jacobs is often described as a visionary who disputed modernism, but also as an apologist for gentrification. Are those characterizations accurate?

Both of these characterizations have some truth to them, but they fail to see Jacobs whole. Her critiques of modernism in architecture and city planning were influential, but she was, in her way, a modernist herself, in that she wanted to understand how it was that cities actually worked and facilitate and express those processes in built form — a mission in keeping with the modern belief that “form follows function.” This modern aspect of her thought was reflected in many of the real projects she championed or directly influenced, like Victor Gruen’s Plan for Fort Worth, the West Village Houses in New York, the Eaton Centre in Toronto, or the unbuilt Harbour City — an experimental neighborhood to be built from scratch on Lake Ontario.

Likewise, Jacobs became an inspiration to a whole generation of middle-class, largely (but not entirely) white people who have moved to cities in the last 50 years. Her vision of city life, with its detailed analysis of vibrant sidewalk life and diverse neighborhoods, has exerted a romantic pull for many. But as early as 1961, a year before the term “gentrification” was coined, Jacobs was also quite aware that neighborhoods could become the reserve of a narrow band of uses and users. In “Death and Life…,” she called the culmination of gentrification the “self-destruction of diversity.” Throughout her life she would propose a range of strategies to address this problem, from subsidies for affordable housing to reforming property taxes to a guaranteed mortgage program for small business owners.

Do Jacobs’ writings provide ways to address displacement that comes with the gentrification of urban neighborhoods?

What Jacobs helps us to imagine is a just city that tries to manage the change that is inevitable in urban life. She long advocated for citizens having a more active role in the planning of urban improvements and for more democratic urban economies in which governments looked to support small establishments and industries. These kinds of policies always prove controversial — and the devil is always in the details — but with plans and subsidies that preserve affordable space to live and work, and policies that actively favor small-scale industry and business over established interests, our society might be able to better manage urban transformation on behalf of those who stand to lose the most from it.

Does her work provide a toolkit for democratic engagement in urban planning that can be used today?

Not exactly a toolkit — but her work still gives us a feeling for what’s missing in many cities today. Everybody likes to tout themselves as disciples of Jacobs; and there is a lot more mixed-use development going on these days, a lot more planning in which commercial or retail uses are built in to housing developments, and even some active planning for privately built affordable housing in some places. But there’s still too much reliance on large corporate developers — hard to avoid in many cities, where land prices are so high — and much of the allowance for citizen participation tends towards the reactive — very formalized ways for people to comment on plans that have already been more or less finished, financed and green-lighted.

Jacobs believed, naively perhaps, that ordinary people could take an active role in deciding how they’d like to see their communities develop and be a part of the process. We’d do well to see more attempts to actually try to put that into action today.

Do you have a favorite piece of writing from “Vital Little Plans?”

Zipp: There are a lot of great pieces in the collection, but I am partial to her final speech, “The End of the Plantation Age,” given in New York in 2004.  I was there at City College when she gave the speech. Jacobs was quite elderly and it was hard, at the time, to make heads or tails of a talk that rambled a bit and seemed to jump from topic to topic. But now, reading it in the context of her whole body of work, I see how it represents a fragment of a whole new direction in her thought — an attempt to lay out a theory of human history and some hopeful thoughts about the human future. It’s too bad she was never able to finish that work.   

Storring: My favorite piece is Jacobs’ speech at the first Earth Day in 1970, “The Real Problem of Cities.” I found it as an undated fragment in the Jacobs papers at Boston College, and after some digging and a few lucky references in the speech, I was able to pinpoint when and where it took place. It turns out that Jane Jacobs spoke alongside Senator Gaylord Nelson — the founder of Earth Day — at a teach-in in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and while she agreed wholeheartedly about his serious concern for the environment, she also boldly denounced conventional environmentalist wisdom of the time, like anti-city planning and population control, which she said were “planning for the status quo.” This speech still has much to teach us today, particularly in her arguments about how the problems of environmental degradation, inequality and economic stagnation reinforce one another.