When she was a young woman, Jane Jacobs used to have imaginary conversations with such luminaries as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Explaining herself to two of history's greatest minds helped clarify her own thinking. The technique apparently worked wonders, because Ms. Jacobs, who died last month, was a writer and social critic whose landmark book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), changed the way the world looks at vast urban centers.
Outwardly, Jacobs seemed to lead a rather prosaic life. She was a housewife and mother who lived above a candy store in New York's Greenwich Village. But what she saw each day as she shopped, communed with her neighbors, and walked her children to school, affected her deeply. The rhythms of city life sowed many seeds in her lifetime of work and contemplative thought. When she sat down to write, her observations were more accessible and penetrating than those of many of the urban theorists of her time or since.
"What makes a successful city?" she routinely asked Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. She must have found the inspiration she sought, for Jacobs arrived at a groundbreaking formula that embraced the need for mixed-use buildings, narrow streets, and a neighborhood population rich in density and diversity. If cities are easy to get around, and each block is chock-full of shops and things to do, she observed, they will inevitably take on a life of their own.
Her ideas were heretical at a time in our nation when master builders and architects held sway, insisting that gleaming skyscrapers and cold academic principles of design were all that were needed to breathe life into American cities. These titans must have looked ridiculous sparring with the outspoken woman in unstylish glasses who spoke fondly of pubs, laundromats, and places where children could play hopscotch. To this day, architects the world over still debate the merits of Jacobs's work. And remarkably, some of her principles are guiding the restoration of the former World Trade Center site.
For the past three years, we have been in the position of having numerous imaginary conversations with Jane Jacobs, our virtual mentor, as we researched, wrote, and produced an upcoming PBS film documentary series, "Edens Lost & Found," on the renewal of four American cities. This is an especially significant time to revisit Jacobs's ideas. Currently 80 percent of the US population lives in urban centers built with little understanding of their …