Jane Jacobs’ ideas on viable cities are more relevant than ever

Jane Jacobs’ ideas about walkable neighborhoods, diversity and mixed use development are consistent with prevailing planning principles of compact urban development and mixing land uses to create economically viable places.

Jane Jacobs was born in 1916 and died in 2006. While she was not a professional planner, designer or architect, she was an advocate for strong, viable urban places. She was also a strong critic of suburban development and believed that planners and decision makers who were responsible for urban redevelopment were wrong in their approaches to such issues. Jacobs was a writer and many of her ideas and observations were based on her experiences in New York City and captured in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961and reprinted in 2011.

Jacobs opposed large, complex urban renewal projects that destroyed and divided neighborhoods and argued for communities that possessed diversity and a blending of uses. Jacobs discussed the three primary roles that sidewalks played in neighborhoods: safety, contact, and the assimilation of children. Jane believed that people on the street walking, talking, playing, sitting, watching and working all made for a viable and safe street. The interactions and constant activity produced a place with a high degree of social contact for residents, children and business owners as well as pedestrians passing through neighborhoods.

Jacobs argued against what she called single use parks. These were parks that were used only at specific times of the day and by a specific population. She believed that parks must possess the same characteristics as vibrant streets. They must have multiple users at different times of the day and for different purposes. Like diverse, vibrant streets, parks must also have diverse users and activities that will expand the interactions occurring with the park space.

Sound familiar?

Michigan State University Extension and many professional planners believe in these same principles. This mindset eventually evolved into what we now call smart growth, with principles that include walkable neighborhoods, creating communities with a strong sense of place, creating a range of housing options, mix land uses, and expanding compact neighborhood design and creating a range of housing choices. While these smart growth principles are not exhaustive, they are consistent with the ideas argued by Jacobs in the 1960s.

In her book, Jacobs argued for a mixing of land uses. She stated the following:

“The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.”

She argued that like streets and parks, successful commercial neighborhoods must have a strong diversity of business uses. Jacobs made the argument for viable urban cities during a time of suburbanization that started primarily after World War II. This was also the time of large-scale urban renewal, slum clearance and the construction of urban expressways.

Many of these activities had negative impacts of the urban neighborhoods they were designed to help rebuild. The ideas and concepts in Jacobs’s book are embraced now by many planners who believe that sustainable urban development with a mixing of land uses and increased densities in urban areas with a variety of uses and users is the recipe for successful places, successful districts and successful regions.

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