Vital Signs

Death and Life of a Great Urban Thinker

The death on April 25 at the age of 89 of Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and several other books, has already set off a debate over her legacy.  Admirers from the New Urbanist movement see her primarily as an advocate for compact, vibrant cities.  They cite Jacobs as inspiration for their war against urban sprawl.  These folks have been the ones mostly called upon to eulogize her, and the casual observer would be left to think that she was one of them.

Others—myself included—recognize that Jacobs was, of course, an advocate for urban life, compact cities, and other things the New Urbanists promote but believe her biggest legacy is one of standing up for the average urban citizen against the coercive designs of city officials, planners, architects, and bureaucrats.  She was, first and foremost, an advocate for freedom and individual decision-making.  Her blasts against government planners are as stinging as those written by Ayn Rand, although they display a subtlety that Rand could never master and an understanding of community that Rand could not grasp.

In 1961, when Jacobs wrote Death and Life, the big planning fads of the day were those advanced by the likes of New York planner Robert Moses.  The poor should not be forced to live in ugly tenements, with their kids playing in the streets.  They shouldn’t have to endure...

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