For Women’s History Month, we are profiling women from the past who have contributed in some way to civil and social justice efforts. We’ve already featured Lillian Wald, a public health advocate during the American Progressive Era, whose work in Settlement Houses helped establish the modern disciplines of social work and public health nursing. Next, we saluted the efforts of Lucy Burns, a feisty and passionate suffragist dedicated to the cause of equal rights for women. Today, we look at another impressive woman, the urban ecologist and community advocate Jane Jacobs.
At first, Jacobs was dismissed as a “mere housewife.” Her most important work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), was discredited by one reviewer who described it as “Mother Jacob’s Home Remedies.” Today, Jacobs is recognized as a bold, innovative thinker whose influence and contributions to life in cities all over the world are still felt today.
At heart, Jacobs was an observer. (She coined the term “eyes on the street” to describe her observational way of reading a community.) Her keen perception about people and the communities they inhabit informed all of her writing and activism. Jacobs had no formal training as an urban planner or sociologist, but her observations about city life gave her the street cred of a true public intellectual. Jacobs was more than a mouthpiece for a movement, however; she was a boots-on-the-ground, grassroots organizer who encouraged everyday folks to take part in shaping their communities from the bottom up. Her most notorious battle, which is detailed in the documentary Citizen Jane: Battle for the City was her fight for the soul of New York City.
In an effort to save her own Greenwich Village neighborhood, Jacobs faced off against the powerful Robert Moses, a major player in the planning and development of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s. Although he too lacked any formal education in urban design, he was known as the “master builder” of New York City. He favored the construction of expressways over public transit, and the implementation of other “urban renewal” projects that, in effect, favored the growth of suburbs instead of urban communities.
Jacobs, in direct opposition to the Moses plan, was a proponent of citizen participation in the development of neighborhoods, within city limits. She recognized that dense, diverse, and cohesive cities provided the best environments for culture, progress, and growth, as well as justice. When the people create their communities, they are invested in their well-being, she argued. That investment promotes social justice and support for the needs of the people who live there. It also inspires the residents to appreciate and preserve the history of their neighborhoods. One of the major roadways that Moses envisioned for New York City was the LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway). The plans for LOMEX gave no consideration to the preservation of the city and would have cut through the heart of neighborhoods like SoHo, Little Italy, and Chinatown. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Jane Jacobs and the community activists she mobilized, LOMEX was defeated.
Community centers, playgrounds, parks, libraries, housing, transportation, outdoor theaters, green spaces, walkability, mixed-use buildings, bike lanes, ADA accommodations (such as audible crosswalks and curb cuts for wheelchairs), medical clinics, outdoor theaters and more – all of these components create “living cities” that are adaptable, equitable, and vibrant. The pride of ownership in helping to build these components knits communities together, and those connections build the socially just environments in which people thrive.
Intuitively, Jane Jacobs, a keen observer and dedicated advocate for healthy communities, knew this. Despite being underestimated by some during her day, she is now recognized as one of the most important thinkers on the subject of urban development and design.