I discovered Jane Jacobs rather late. It was 2003 a few years after college. Due to insufficient funds, I’d recently moved home from New York City, into my mother’s basement back in Saint Paul, and was spending much of my time reading books. The way I remember it, I was reading through a book of Jonathan Franzen essays and came across an intriguging quote by Jacobs, something about the paradox of feeling anonymity in crowds. It made me curiuos enough to track down a copy of her famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and I’ve been in love with her ideas ever since.
Jacobs is a curious and heroic figure in American urbanism, the epitome of low-brow common sense genius. She was a high-school educated writer from Scranton, Pennsylvania who began her writing career penning an architecture column for Architectural Forum magazine. Famously self-taught, she became more and more critical of architecture and planning throughout the 1950s, until she caught the eye of the Rockefeller Foundation, who helped her publish her masterpiece in 1960. The rest is well-known history, and it’s fair to say that the world of urban planning has not been the same since. Jacobs sits comfortably at the top of most every “most influential urban thinker” list you can find. It’s an ironic place to be, as Jacobs has become more influential than scores of well-educated and pompous men, experts like Lewis Mumford or Robert Moses who had easy access to the halls of influence. Hers is a story of women triumphing over men, common sense over the academy, and the people over the powerful.
Downtown is For People, published in Fortune magazine in 1958, was Jacobs’ first major essay critiquing city planning, the place where she first tried out her ideas about what cities should be. Reading it now, fifty-five years later, you can see her early argument forming. She talks about the importance of small blocks, the need to have diversity in building types, ages, and affordability. She talks about the need to focus on people, not on architecture or planning diagrams. She describes her methodology, which literally focuses looking from the bottom up, keeping attention at street-level activities.
She also shares her admiration for Victor Gruen’s famous plan for downtown Fort Worth, which would have made the downtown a car-free zone surrounded by large parking lots, with intensified street activities. (It was never completed.)
1958 was also about the that downtown Minneapolis entered its midlife crisis. General Mills had just decamped from downtown to a suburban campus in Golden Valley. Dayton’s had just opened up Southdale. Suburbs were sprawling outward at record rates. In residential, office, and retail, downtown was on the verge of collapse. Business owners in the Minneapolis Club were sweating, and not just in the steam room. Their solutions — the skyway system, Nicollet Mall, and razing the run-down Gateway district — were pretty typical of an American city. They did more harm than good, and downtowns across the US are still trying to correct these planning and design missteps.
If only they’d seen what Jacobs saw. Re-reading her pivotal essay today, you’d never know it was written fifty-five years ago. Her words are no different from any you’d find on Planetizen, on this blog, or during a planning consultant powerpoint.For example, Jacobs’ castigation of downtown malls is based on their uniform retail spaces. She writes that “lack of variety in age and iverhead is an unavoidable defect in large new shopping centers and is one reason why even the most successful cannot incubate the unusual – a point overlooked by planners of downtown shopping-center projects.” Truer words have never been said about Block E.
Even today, Jacobs would have disliked most of Downtown Minneapolis. Everywhere you walk, you’ll find “spacious, parklike” plazas, “long green vistas,” and skyway system that’s the epitome of “stable and symmetrical and orderly.” Jacobs would have had to wait a long time to discover her “cheerful hurly-burly.” Reading through her first famous essay today, you realize how far ahead of her time she really was. Over half a century later, we’re only beginning to catch up with her.