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In Perspective: Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

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Jane Jacobs will probably be best remembered, in the books of history at least, for rallying against Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway which would have cleaved Washington Square Park in two, a feat which led to her arrest for inciting a riot in 1968. Jacobs, however, will also be remembered for her innovative conceptual approach to the community aspect of a city and how that should be planned for.

Jacobs’ path to engaging with architecture and planning was atypical; in fact, she was led to it through her emerging career as a journalist and writer. After two years at Colombia, she worked for Iron Age magazine. It was during her time here that her aptitude for commentary and criticism emerged. In an article on the economic depravity of Scranton, the town of her birth, the compelling and engaging nature of her work directly led to the construction of a warplane factory there to revitalise the local economy.

In 1954, Jacobs was sent to Philadelphia to write on a new development for Architectural Forum. Having been shown around the undeveloped area and the ways in which the subsequent building had purported to improve it, Jacobs thoroughly disagreed. She concluded that the new development had eradicated the community life which was there before. Jacobs argued the primary concern of planning should be for the people who live/work in that community or space, a major theme in her 1961 work The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jacobs’ clarity on this issue was perhaps a product of her lack of formal training in this field. Her two years at Colombia were spent studying zoology, geology and politics while enrolled on a general studies course. She fully appreciated the simple fact that communities are comprised of people and that, without them, communities cannot exist. By locating community at the heart of her urban philosophy, she re-centred urban design around people.

The case of the Lower Manhattan Expressway is where Jacobs’ philosophy is embodied. Robert Moses, the lead on the project, proposed splitting Washington Square Park in two to facilitate the new expressway. The potential impact on local communities was of little to no importance to Moses.

Jacobs was the chair of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway during the 1960's and reached out to media outlets which were sympathetic to her cause. She was able to engender a spirit within these communities, causing there to be mass disapproval of the developments from those who lived by Washington Square Park. In doing so, she proved the value of community, defeating development plans which resurfaced in 1962, 1965 and 1968. This is often portrayed as a fight similar to that of David and Goliath, with Jacobs standing up in the face of influential and more powerful developers.

She will be remembered for her ability to prioritise community where it had been ignored before. Jacobs was by no means against functionality if anything she was a firm proponent of functionality – it was Jacob’s definition of urban space and its function that was truly radical. Jacobs stuck to this principle throughout her career. She revolutionised planning by issuing a corrective; urban spaces should be valued as the sum of their community, not their physical functions.

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