If urban design is an interest of yours, get ready to put on your party hat. Today marks urban planning icon Jane Jacobs’ 100th birthday, and even Google’s on board to honor the livable cities apostle with her very own Doodle. Even if you’ve never heard of Jacobs, you’ve most likely enjoyed the fruits of her labor, whether with a stroll down New York City’s SoHo or a bike ride on a freeway-turned-public park. In honor of Jacobs and her lasting influence, a new feature documentary—The Jane Jacobs Documentary—will debut at select film festivals this fall. And if that isn’t exciting enough, you’ll be thrilled to learn that the co-founder of the High Line, Robert Hammond, will be co-producing the film alongside journalist and filmmaker Matt Tyrnauer.
Who was Jane Jacobs?
Few people have been more influential to the practice of urban planning than the late Jane Jacobs. Born in 1916, Jacobs was a celebrated self-taught journalist, author, and urban activist. Despite never receiving formal training in urban planning or a college degree, Jacobs challenged the then-accepted wisdom of experts that urban planning necessitated the replacement of old neighborhoods with standardized housing developments, as well as their general distaste for dense city living. In contrast, Jacobs, who drew from her observations in her life in New York City, championed a community-centered approach to placemaking as discussed in her 1958 seminal article “Downtown is for People,” and later in her 1961 landmark book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (a book that’s currently required reading in numerous universities in the world). Although community input in planning is now regarded as the norm, those in the conventional school of thought for top-down city planning readily dismissed it at that time.
In the 1960s, Jacobs became an urban activist and is perhaps best known for her opposition to the urban renewal plans of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who became somewhat of an archrival and was a proponent for highway building projects. In her most famous battle, Jacobs defeated Moses’ plans for the Lower Manhattan Expressway, a 10-lane elevated highway that if built, would have destroyed Washington Square Park, SoHo, and Little Italy.
Jane Jacobs’ lasting legacy
Jacobs passed away in 2006, but her legacy continues to live on. Terms like “mixed-use development” are a dime a dozen today, but they weren’t as popular until Jacobs and her contemporaries pushed for their acceptance. She was one of the first to liken cities to natural ecosystems that are organic, adaptable, and made up of multiple moving elements that form a cohesive whole; this way of thinking changed the way people viewed cities and rejects the notion of a cookie-cutter approach. Jacobs was also a big proponent of community organizing and grassroots planning, and was well known for her preference for high-density city living and spontaneous design over sterile suburban life. Designers in both the public and private sector throughout the world implement her observations and guidelines for planning – from her emphasis on historic architecture preservation to her “eyes on the street” public safety concept.
Jacobs’ school of thought isn’t perfect, however. Critics say her solutions aren’t scalable and that the livable spaces that have resulted from her school of thought can lead to gentrification and soaring real estate prices that edge out the poor. Still, it’s undeniable that she’s helped shape many of our cities into more enjoyable, livable, and greener places to live.
The Jane Jacobs Documentary
The Jane Jacobs Documentary is a 90-minute feature that will be the first-ever definitive film on Jacobs’ work as an urban activist and theorist. It will delve into her background, ideas, and challenges in pushing for a more sustainable urban planning approach in a male-dominated field. The battles between Jacobs and Moses over the fate of New York City feature prominently in the feature. “This is a film about our urban past and our urban future,” says Tyrnauer. “Jacobs is one of the great writers and thinkers of the 20th century, and her observations about cities is extraordinarily relevant today as the world is urbanizing at an unprecedented pace. By the end of this century it’s predicted that the world will be almost 90% urbanized. Jacobs’s ideas about healthy, just, and vibrant cities being planned and empowered from the bottom up are very important today, when discredited top-down planning is still destroying cities and lives all around the world.”
Images via The Jane Jacobs Documentary