Jane Jacobs, the most influential critic of urban planning of our times, died April 25 in Toronto. Her most notable book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, written in 1961, changed the debate over cities in America — even if many of her ideas were rejected by political leaders.
Her arguments were controversial, and some were doubtlessly unworkable, but she had firm ideas about the danger posed by the breakdown of community within cities torn apart by giant concrete structures and elevated freeways.
In her last book, Dark Age Ahead, she issued an even more ominous warning — suggesting that the civilization was now at risk precisely because genuine community was fast disappearing.
Here is how she concluded the book:
History has repeatedly demonstrated that empires seldom seem to retain sufficient cultural self-awareness to prevent them from overreaching and overgrasping. They have neglected to recognize that the true power of a successful culture resides in its example. This is a patient and grown-up attutude to take. To take it successfully, a society must be self-aware. Any culture that jettisons the values that have given it competence, adaptability, and identity becomes weak and hollow. A culture can avoid that hazard only by tenaciously retaining the underlying values responsible for the culture’s nature and success. That is a framework into which adaptations must be assimilated. In the case of American culture, and other cultures it has profoundly influenced, such as Canada’s, I know no better expression of its core values than the words voiced by Lincoln: ‘that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.’ The many indispensable minutiae for expressing and safeguarding that core were added into the culture over centuries; as long as they are not lost to practice and memory, the possibility remains that they can be augmented for centuries to come.
Fundamentally, however, one does not look to Jane Jacobs for specific policy prescriptions, though she explored many ideas in fascinating and original ways. Her essential message was far broader. It involved a faith in cities and people to work out their problems in original ways, ways which would create new jobs, new wealth, and, ultimately, lead to new problems that people would eventually solve as well. Cities are the forum in which this all happens, the place in which intellectual and economic cross-pollination occurs.