We celebrate Jane Jacobs' legacy by encouraging people to walk their cities through free, locally-led tours.
Jane Jacobs at the White Horse Tavern in 1961 (Credit: Cervin Robinson)
“Jacobs was a woman of infinite humility, compassion, warmth and generosity of spirit. She reveled in challenging conversation with thoughtful people, listened carefully to citizen testimony at public hearings, never resisted the opportunity to stand up to power and wished only for people to continue the dialogue she started, not duplicate her words… Jacobs’s thought and writing comprise a resounding symphony of lessons and ideas; they compose a life’s work about economic, social and environmental justice.” - The Nation
Legendary urban thinker, writer and activist Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building. She had no formal training as a planner, and yet her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail that now seem like common sense to generations of architects, planners, politicians and activists.
Jacobs saw cities as ecosystems that had their own logic and dynamism which would change over time according to how they were used. With a keen eye for detail, she wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, retail design and self-organization. She promoted higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies and mixed uses. Jacobs helped derail the car-centred approach to urban planning in both New York and Toronto, invigorating neighbourhood activism by helping stop the expansion of expressways and roads. She lived in Greenwich Village for decades, then moved to Toronto in 1968 where she continued her work and writing on urbanism, economies and social issues until her death in April 2006.
A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighbourhoods develop, Jacobs encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work and play with words like these:
“No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”
-Downtown is for People, 1957.
Jacobs’ wrote incisively and beautifully on the importance of dense and vibrant city-scapes, famously uncovering the ‘sidewalk ballet’, that intricate dance between neighbours and passers-by that make a street enjoyable and friendly.
“Under the seeming disorder of the old city, wherever the old city is working successfully, is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the streets and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. Its essence is intricacy of sidewalk use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes. This order is all composed of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city and liken it to the dance — not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing off en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations.”
— Jane Jacobs, ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’