Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was an urbanist and activist whose writings championed a fresh, community-based approach to city building.
She had no formal training as a planner, and yet her 1961 treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, introduced ground-breaking ideas about how cities function, evolve and fail that now seem like common sense to generations of architects, planners, politicians and activists.
Jacobs saw cities as ecosystems that had their own logic and dynamism which would change over time according to how they were used.
With a keen eye for detail, she wrote eloquently about sidewalks, parks, retail design and self-organization.
She promoted higher density in cities, short blocks, local economies and mixed uses.
Jacobs helped derail the car-centred approach to urban planning in both New York and Toronto, invigorating neighbourhood activism by helping stop the expansion of expressways and roads.
She lived in Greenwich Village for decades, then moved to Toronto in 1968 where she continued her work and writing on urbanism, economies and social issues until her death in April 2006.
A firm believer in the importance of local residents having input on how their neighbourhoods develop, Jacobs encouraged people to familiarize themselves with the places where they live, work and play with words like these:
“No one can find what will work for our cities by looking at … suburban garden cities, manipulating scale models, or inventing dream cities. You’ve got to get out and walk.”
-Downtown is for People, 1957.
Jacobs’ wrote incisively and beautifully on the importance of dense and vibrant city-scapes, famously uncovering the ‘sidewalk ballet’, that intricate dance between neighbours and passers-by that make a street enjoyable and friendly.