"If you see something that is wrong, you have to hop to and try to change it. Don't worry about the big, abstract problems that no one, not even the government, can solve. Deal with problems close to home."
Activist and author Jane Jacobs for many years explained and defended her vision that urban neighbourhoods should be densely packed and diverse. Though she held no degree in urban planning, her influence on urban planners and neighbourhood activists alike was profound - whether they agreed with her or not.
Jacobs was born in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania in 1916; her father was a doctor and her mother a teacher. She recalled that she was an indifferent student, easily bored and doing just enough work to get by. After high school she took an unpaid positon as editorial assitant at a local newspaper, but soon after, in 1934 (the middle of the Depression), she left for New York City, where she worked at a variety of jobs and spent time unemployed and poor. Finally she began to find her feet as a writer, working freelance for a metals trade paper, the New York Herald Tribune, and Vogue. She later got a job at the Office of War Information, where she met architect Robert Jacobs; the two fell in love, married, and had three children. She was associate editor of Architectural Digest from 1958-1962; during this time she gained a reputation for attacking urban planners - particularly Robert Moses - who were intent of building expressways and housing projects in New York, in the process destroying vibrant older neighbourhoods that had grown and flourished over the decades.
"I didn't inherit a great wish to be an activist. I was pushed into it by things that were just so outrageous."
In 1961 she published her first and most influential book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In it she took on the modernist vision of cities as being made up of discrete units dedicated to particular purposes - here huge tracts of housing, there a financial centre, over there the shopping district, and so on. Instead, she put forward her view that the urban fabric should embrace the naturally occurring organic chaos of the mixed-use urban street: homes alongside shops, offices near factories, and through it all dense conglomerations of people who know one another and form bonds of friendship and community. She was active in trying to save communities such as Greenwich Village from the steamroller of "development" (read: destruction of old neighbourhoods and their replacement by massive housing projects) and served on the New York Community Planning Board.
Never one to shy away from controversial subjects, Jacobs was vocal in her opposition to the Vietnam War, and when her sons became eligible for the draft, the family moved to Toronto (my town!), where she lived until her death in 2006; her husband died in 1998. In Toronto Jacobs was active in many debates about city plannning. She memorably helped stop a proposed expressway from being ploughed through our downtown Chinatown, preserving a lovely historic part of the city that is popular with locals and tourists alike.
She was awarded the Order of Canada in 1996 in recognition of her "seminal writings and thought-provoking commentaries on urban development".
Jane Jacobs was a woman of convictions and a self-made intellectual, always a wonderful combination in my view. She was rather impish looking with a helmet of now-grey hair and owlish glasses; she liked beer and discussing ideas. During her life, and now after her death, she is rightly celebrated as a great thinker and visionary who helped to change the way we think about our cities and what they are and can be.
Books by Jane Jacobs: