Jane Jacobs, 1916 – 2006, z"l

I am sorry to report on the death of Jane Jacobs, a woman whose influence on my own life was profound, but not nearly so profound as the revolution in urban planning that followed her 1961 book, “Death and Life of Great American Cities.” She followed that with a life of activism and additional writing.
In the late 1950s/early 1960s, Jacobs also led a coalition that stopped Robert Moses’ plans to run freeways through Washington Square NYC. It is one of the few areas that he did not succeed in turning to concrete wasteland.
In 1967, after a demonstration at the Pentagon, and with her own children approaching draft age, she and her husband picked up and moved to Toronto where she immediately became known for stopping yet another freeway (the proposed Spadina Freeway) from destroying downtown neighborhoods. The city ultimately honored her with a conference on her work which included everything from an exhibit of her drawings at the Art Gallery of Ontario to an actual celebration of new urban planning (or anti-planning).
I met her in person at a Flying Bulgars concert in Toronto a decade ago and treasure that short meeting. She was everyone’s dream of a wonderful Jewish grandmother, although she, herself, considered herself a more general atheist. When I discovered her writing a couple of years later, I was most blown away by how much of what she wrote about good physical city planning applied directly to the online community work that I had done over the preceding two decades.
Goodbye, Jane, and thanks for the insights and activism. A better role model would be hard to find. Her memory will certainly be a blessing.
More complete obituaries can be found on the Toronto Star, or at the Planet Netizen (great community planning) site.

6 thoughts on “Jane Jacobs, 1916 – 2006, z"l

  1. This is only some of what makes Jane Jacobs such an incredible theorist and activist.
    While the term “sustainable cities” was donned a generation after her most famous book was published, she lays the groundwork for what makes urban areas thrive. Rather than arguing that “development” which comes from the top down improves urban areas, Jacobs advocates for organic communities, where everyone has ‘eyes on the street’, mixed use planning (both commerce and residences are side by side), and the use of urban public culture and local business. She argues that urban neighborhoods are in fact extremely safe, because everyone knows one another by proximity.
    As a Park Slope resident, I think about Jacobs a lot. Especially every time I actually use my stoop, to eat, think and reflect. With new top-down developments like the atlantic yards project being planned every day, it is important that we keep Jacobs theories in mind, and not forget what we are striving for our communities to be.

  2. Check out the obit on the blog (free market Austrian economics blog): (
    April 25, 2006
    Jane Jacobs, RIP Updates
    Jane Jacobs (born 1916), author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, died today. Obituaries will invariably describe her views in a way that suggest she made a case against market economics. But Rothbard described her book as “a brilliant, scintillating work celebrating the primacy for economic development, past and present, of free-market cities.”
    And Gene Callahan and Sanford Ikeda agree that her research showed that government planning is what destroys cities:
    Jacobs claims her keen understanding of urban processes originates by thinking inductively, rather than by proceeding explicitly from grand philosophical or ideological principles. She has been for and against various government initiatives. And the truth is that leftish intellectuals have indeed adopted many of her ideas. Although Jacobs is not uniformly opposed to using coercive regulation (e.g., substituting zoning for size limitations of buildings for zoning for use), in our opinion, however, those intellectuals have adopted her ideas out of context. That is, Jacobs’s descriptions of successful cities that have spontaneously formed walkable downtowns, mixed primary uses, short blocks, and buildings of a variety of styles and vintages have been interpreted by some as prescriptions for new, more enlightened forms of interventionist urban planning. Those in what are known as The New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements are especially guilty of this.
    Jacobs herself has criticized the New Urbanists:
    “[T]he New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I’ve seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don’t connect.”
    Despite her occasional advocacy of government intervention, there is a very strong libertarian tendency in Jacobs’ writings…
    The NYT recounts her history of protesting huge public works and the Vietnam War, and favoring secession to divide up large government units. “I hate the government for making my life absurd,” she said in an interview with the journal Government Technology in 1998. –

  3. The sociologist! For a moment there I thought you meant the British chick who used to sing in Mike’s Place.

  4. I’ve never heard of her, but if she has a glowing review from the Mises Institute, I’m more than happy to take a look at her life and activities with the small amount of free time I can mobilize.

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