May 4th, 2016 marks what would have been the 100th birthday of one of the most influential people in modern urban societies today. Jane Jacobs, a writer and social activist of the 1960’s, completely changed the look of and approach to industrialized cities with her revolutionary ideas, which still influence the development of urban areas to this day. Burns Library holds an extensive collection of the author’s papers and you can view the finding aid for the Jane Jacobs papers here.
Jane Jacobs was born to John and Bess Butzner on May 4th, 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. After a brief career as a reporter in the Scranton Tribune, Jacobs moved to
New York City in 1938 to attend Columbia University’s School of General Studies. After two years of studying, Jacobs left Columbia to work at a variety of writing and editing jobs. She never completed her degree.
Jacobs was immediately swept into the up-and-coming topics of city planning and rebuilding in 1952 when she became an associate editor for Architectural Forum magazine. Rather than rely on formal schooling within this discipline, however, Jacobs based her then-radical viewpoints on everyday observations of her street in Greenwich Village. This prompted backlash from many professionals, who claimed that Jacobs’ lack of foundation in the field renders her writings useless and amateur.
Despite this outcry, Jacobs’ first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, forever changed the field of urban planning. In her works, Jacobs espouses a diverse, tightly-knit, and bustling city to provide the best environment for both progress and culture. Jacobs believes most importantly that “cities have the capability of providing something for everybody because–and only when–they are created by everybody.” Her works eventually ascended to the status of college textbooks, a title they maintain to this day. Jane Jacobs proved that she will be heard and that her beliefs are here to stay.
In addition to instigating change from behind a typewriter, Jacobs plunged even further into social activism through her actions. Jacobs led protests, speeches, and
conferences against the bulldozer-happy movement of the mid- to late-1900’s. She proved herself unafraid even of imprisonment after her arrest in 1968 on the charges of riot and criminal mischief; she and her supporters rushed the stage of a public meeting regarding the construction of an expressway, which would have cut through Manhattan and displaced hundreds of homes, businesses, and families. This plan was eventually discarded, due largely in part to Jacobs’ protests against it.
Jacobs’ movement soon extended far past the boundaries of New York City to spread rapidly across the United States–even President Richard Nixon canceled his urban-renewal plan after the popularization of Jacobs’ ideas. She was contacted by President Lyndon Johnson, former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, and asked to appear at many conferences and exhibitions. Her reach extends even into modern times, with Jacobs-inspired concepts such as advocacy planning, smart growth, new urbanism, and social capital entering the lexicon of city planning and administration.
Jacobs moved to Canada in 1969 in protest of the Vietnam War. This did not mark the end of her activism, however; she carried her rallying cry of new urbanization to the streets of Toronto and all of Canada. Jacobs passed away in her Toronto home on April 25, 2006 after writing 11 books, preventing the construction of many speedways, and recentering city life on the people within it.
No matter what the cost, Jacobs championed the prioritization of the citizens within the city-limits. This idea, which seems natural to the modern-day reader, was a radical view at the time of Jacob’s activism. In the fast-paced world of new high-rise towers, it became clear that we needed a new voice, one that could provide an unbiased and simple platform from which to look into the future. Jane Jacobs rose to fill that need.
If you would like to learn more about Jane Jacobs or view her papers, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at (617)-552-4861 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Madeline George, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & Student in MCAS, Class of 2019