JANE JACOBS ; Critic of the Modernist Approach to Urban Planning Who Believed That Cities Were Places for People

By Ward, Stephen | The Independent (London, England), June 3, 2006 | Go to article overview
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JANE JACOBS ; Critic of the Modernist Approach to Urban Planning Who Believed That Cities Were Places for People


Ward, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)


Jane Jacobs was the first and remains much the best-known critic of the comprehensive modernist approach to urban planning after 1945. Her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), was a trenchantly written and sustained assault on what she saw happening to American cities during the 1950s. It expressed misgivings that were emerging throughout the West and was eventually translated into six languages, selling over a quarter of a million copies.

Jacobs objected to what she labelled the "Radiant Garden City Beautiful", an amalgam of all the principal planning theories of the time, which she saw as being utterly at odds with urban realities, and leading to the destruction of the city as a living community.

Her most telling fire was directed at the Swiss-French architect Le Cor-busier's concept of the "Radiant City" which underpinned the ambitious urban renewal policies being pursued in American cities at the time. This futurist vision insisted on the absolute segregation of the city's different activities into separate zones, linked (though also physically isolated) by super-highways set in wide parkland landscaping. The colossal physical destruction that was necessary to implement this vision tore apart the traditional multi- activity street and densely populated neighbourhood that Jacobs saw as the bedrock of urban living.

It also accelerated the dispersal of former dense and diverse urban communities into distant and sterile residential suburbs. For this, she blamed the English reformer Ebenezer Howard's vision of the "Garden City" which, in her view, fostered the romantic belief that the problems of urban living could only be solved by escape to a lower-density, semi-rural existence.

This devastating critique grew largely outside the specialist realms of architecture and urban planning. Jane Butzner was born in 1916 into a middle-class Jewish family in the mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania. She was an undistinguished high-school student but dabbled in journalism before moving in 1934 to join her older sister Betty in New York City.

During the Depression the sisters scraped a living, taking what jobs they could and surviving at times on Pablum baby food, bananas and milk. Jane's often fruitless searches for work took her to different parts of the city. In this way she found and instantly fell in love with Greenwich Village, persuading her sister that this was where they should live. At the time this densely populated and diverse downtown neighbourhood was an established haunt for Bohemian intellectuals but was still far from the chic, upmarket address of today. Throughout her life it provided the foundation of her thinking about cities.

Jane Butzner worked in various jobs for several years but gradually broke into journalism, selling occasional articles. Many drew on her explorations of New York and she began to establish a reputation as a commentator on urban themes. During the Second World War she became a feature writer for the Office of War Information, while there meeting and in 1944 marrying Robert Hyde Jacobs, an architect. They had two sons and one daughter and lived together until his death in 1998. Jane's experiences as a young mother strengthened her belief in the virtues of close downtown neighbourhoods such as Greenwich.

During the early post-war years her journalism increasingly focused on architecture and planning, especially after she joined the magazine Architectural Forum in 1952. She also became concerned about the way McCarthy-ism was suppressing dissent just as city business and professional lites were promoting ever more ambitious and destructive programmes of urban renewal. This and her growing reputation as a commentator, especially following her first book, drew her increasingly into activism.

Nineteen sixty-two found her chair of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway, locked in bitter confrontation with New York's powerful and ruthless urban renewal and highways bureaucrat Robert Moses.

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