Jane Jacobs
Jane Jacobs, as chairman of the Committee to Save the West Village, presents evidence at a press conference at New York's Lion’s Head restaurant in 1961.

Jane Jacobs was awarded the Thomas Jefferson Foundation Medal of Architecture by the University of Virginia in 1996, joining the Olympian ranks of architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Alvar Aalto, and James Stirling. Yet the writer was cited not for architectural design, but for “the most influential book of our century,” The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), published 55 years ago. In part, the citation read, “From the publication of this book, one can date the rethinking of U.S. urban renewal policies, the eclipse of modern architecture, the rise of historic preservation, the invigoration of neighborhood involvement, and even vigorous and principled public opposition to large-scale public projects that threaten to destroy the texture and vitality of urban places.” Two years after this honor, Jacobs received a Presidential Citation from the AIA.

Thomas J. Campanella, a professor of urban planning at the University of North Carolina compared Death and Life to Martin Luther’s “95 Theses,” which ignited the Reformation. “So thoroughly internalized was Jacobs’ critique,” he said, “that planners could see only folly and failure in the work of their forebears. Daniel Burnham’s declaration, ‘Make no little plans,’ went from a battle cry to an embarrassment in less than a decade.”

Jacobs was always a polarizing figure. She was a housewife without any design training who took on America’s planning establishment, most notably defeating Robert Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway. She was tough-minded, often thorny, and always right. Her legacy is impossible to dismiss.

Most of us in architecture recall when we first encountered Jane Jacobs’ work. Assigned a chapter in Death and Life at Dartmouth, I devoured the entire book; everything since was measured against Jacobs. As a historian of cities, I taught the town planning literature of Ian Nairn, Gordon Cullen, Camillo Sitte, Kevin Lynch, and Steen Eiler Rasmussen. But no writing by that humanist pantheon had more impact than that of Jacobs, and I carried her precepts with me to New York to study historic preservation.

Now, a century after her birth, Saint Jane has been canonized. “Jane Jacobs 100: Her Legacy and Relevance in the 21st Century” was the title of a conclave held at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. There’s an opera, a Girl Scout merit badge, and the forthcoming Whole Jane Catalog. Jacobs mavens take Jane’s Walks in cities as far away as Melbourne and Anchorage. Jacobs has been adopted as the guru of various groups, some of which she would abhor (she would not have gladly walked around Seaside, Fla.).

Stephen Goldsmith, director of the Center for the Living City at the University of Utah, says, “She would be a little embarrassed by all of the attention.” Yet a new biography by science writer Robert Kanigel of the woman who believed that downtowns are for people provides ballast to offset the adulation. Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs (Knopf, 2016) is the sort of full-on study, complete with footnotes and bibliography, that Jacobs required.

Dramatic revelations are few: Jane’s grandfather was a slaveholder in Virginia and she was Presbyterian, not Jewish. High school graduate Jane Butzner came to New York in 1934. She wrote for Vogue and Architectural Forum, and took some geology classes at Columbia. “I walked in the door,” her husband, architect Robert Jacobs, said of meeting Jane in 1944, “and I fell in love.” They bought a house in New York’s West Village, a protagonist in Death and Life that she regarded as a front-row seat to a daily urban drama. “The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet,” she wrote. “I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the center of the stage dropping candy wrappers.”

The Jacobses raised three children, but Jane was transformed from journalist to the voice of common-sense planning when she represented Architectural Forum at a Harvard conference on urban design. The only woman addressing the giants of the profession— including Edmund Bacon, Victor Gruen, and Lewis Mumford—she spoke passionately for 10 minutes about beleaguered neighborhoods. This was the germ of Death and Life. Planning was never the same.

In 1968, the antiwar Jacobs family moved to Toronto to keep their sons out of Vietnam. There, Jane got involved in protecting streetscapes and wrote several more books: The Economy of Cities (1970), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), Systems of Survival (1992), and the grimly titled Dark Age Ahead (2005).

But the primary achievement of Jane Jacobs’ remarkable Crusader Rabbit life remains the little primer on public housing, neighborhoods, sidewalks, children, safety, and all the messy stuff that contributes to good urban life. Agree with her or not, reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities challenges the way one thinks of density or slums or people sitting on stoops. Makers of cities can get too involved in theory and grandiosity, but Jane Jacobs reminded us that we have what it takes within ourselves to make livable cities: Occam’s razor rather than Ville Radieuse.