Today, we take for granted the wisdom of renovating old factory buildings into malls or condos, of making once decaying waterfronts into vibrant public spaces, of protecting historic buildings under landmark laws, and of building public housing on a human scale rather than as high-rises. In contemporary cities, it is now common for community groups to plant gardens in empty lots and to buy abandoned apartment buildings from the city for a dollar and fix them up.
But these and other urban planning policies and practices have not always been accepted. Before they became widespread, they were the visionary ideas of the writer and urban commentator Jane Jacobs. Best known in the United States for her path-breaking efforts to preserve the character of Greenwich Village, Jacobs is the author of the classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most influential works ever published in urban studies. The architectural critic Herbert Muschamp wrote in the New York Times that its publication “was one of twentieth-century architecture’s most traumatic events. Its impact is still felt in cities across the land.”
In this analysis of Jane Jacobs’s ideas and work, Alice Sparberg Alexiou tells the remarkable story of a woman who without any formal training in planning became a prominent spokesperson for sensible urban change. Besides writing the seminal book about contemporary cities, Jacobs organized successful community battles in New York against powerful interests. She resisted urban renewal in the West Village in the 1960s, helped defeat the Lower Manhattan Expressway, advocated the pleasures of street life that she called “sidewalk ballet,” and opposed the original Twin Towers plans. She was also active in the anti–Vietnam War movement, which eventually led her to move to Canada. There she continued her grass-roots activism, including helping to prevent the construction of an expressway that would have cut through several neighborhoods in Toronto.
Based on a rich array of interviews and primary source material, this book brings long-overdue attention to Jacobs’s far-reaching influence as an original thinker and effective activist.