Jane Jacobs, in her own words: the death and life of a great American urbanist.

Author:Staley, Samuel R.
Position:BOOKS - Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring's "Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs" - Book review

JANE JACOBS WAS fatal to conventional wisdom. In her books, articles, and activism, she destroyed the 20th century urban planning groupthink and laid out a radically different way of thinking about cities and society--one that rejected the prescriptive and centralized approach that dominated the planning profession, and one that instead highlighted how decentralized, market-driven decisions lay the foundation for vibrant and sustainable cities.

A journalist rather than an academic, Jacobs worked regular gigs at Iron Age and Architectural Forum and contributed to popular magazines such as Vogue and Harper's. By the time she took a leave of absence from Architectural Forum to write what remains her most iconic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs was already starting to acquire a reputation as a fierce critic of conventional top-down planning.

She was not opposed to planning per se. Indeed, she believed small-scale plans were vital to cities' sustenance. Neighborhood parks were essential to urban vitality, for example, and their location required planning to be successful. But to work, planning--and governance in general--needed to be devolved to the neighborhood level, moving away from large-scale systems that concentrate authority and power. Jacobs was thus an ardent critic of regional planning and regional government. Regionalizing, or "amalgamating," made city government too far removed from the governed.

That's just one of the themes found in Vital Little Plans, a rich, provocative, and insightful collection of 38 of Jacobs' papers, speeches, and interviews. Jacobs was not a particularly prolific author; she published just a handful of books over a career that spanned more than half a century. With this anthology, published a decade after her death, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring--a historian and an urban designer, respectively--fill in much more of the picture.


What shines through in Jacobs' earliest writings here (including a poem published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1935) is her uncanny ability for inductive empirical analysis--for using data to formulate more general ideas about cities and how they worked. Rather than focusing on regional or macroeconomic abstractions, her observations literally remain at the street level, whether observing the origins and patterns of manhole covers (in Cue magazine) or the greenhouses and shops of New York's wholesale flower district...

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