Jane Jacobs Biography

American-born Canadian writer Jane Jacobs (1916–2006) revolutionized the field of urban planning with her pathbreaking 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities .

In the book Jacobs launched a broadside against the concepts of urban renewal that were fashionable at the time. The seeming disorder and unpredictability of cities, she argued, were actually signs of their vitality, and the brave new world of high-rises envisioned by planners would strangle the buzzing street life that fostered community ties and drew newcomers with its energy. Jacobs backed up her ideas with action, leading several community efforts to resist the obliteration of urban neighborhoods by freeway construction. She was always a controversial figure with as many detractors as admirers, and as the central issue in planning evolved from urban renewal to urban sprawl, she took up other topics in her writing. Nevertheless, Jacobs lived long enough to see the vocabulary of city planning become infused with her ideas.

Held Imaginary Conversations

Jacobs was born Jane Butzner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, on May 4, 1916. Both her parents were Jewish, and both, uncommonly enough for the time, were professionals: her father was a doctor and her mother a schoolteacher. Jacobs was an indifferent student who preferred to read a book of her own, concealed under her desk, rather than listen to her teacher. Her real thinking and learning got done when she was sent to run errands by her family. As she walked, she conducted conversations with three imagined companions: U.S. president Thomas Jefferson, inventor Benjamin Franklin, and a Saxon tribal chief named Cerdic who was a character in an English historical novel she read.

Curiously enough, it was Cerdic who stirred her analytical mind. Later, doing housework, she found that "there were only two things in the entire house that were familiar to him, the fire (although he didn't understand the chimney) and the sword [a Civil War collectible]," she said in an interview, later quoted by Douglas Martin in her New York Times obituary. "Everything else had to be explained to him." After she finished high school, Jacobs was drawn to the bright lights of New York, which had entranced her on an earlier trip. "In 1928 I went there, with friends, and we came through the Holland Tunnel and right into the middle of the financial district, on a regular working day, and I was just flabbergasted by the number of people on the street and how they were all rushing around," she was quoted as saying in the Times of London. Jacobs never obtained a college degree, although she later took courses at Columbia University's adult-oriented School of General Studies.

Her first job was an unpaid newspaper internship in Scranton, but as soon as she could, she headed for New York and moved in with her sister, who was six years older. After she arrived, Jacobs would get on the subway each day, pick a stop at random, and apply for jobs at neighboring businesses. At the Christopher Street stop in Manhattan's Greenwich Village, she found a secretarial job with a candy company and soon an apartment in the colorful neighborhood she came to love. Jacobs and her sister had to scrape together a living in the later years of the Depression, sometimes subsisting on bananas for days at a time, but Jacobs became a confirmed New Yorker. She would live in Lower Manhattan for more than 30 years.

A quick study in almost any new area of knowledge, Jacobs began to write and contribute freelance articles to New York publications. She enjoyed wandering the city and investigating its various neighborhoods and industrial districts, and she wrote about topics ranging from the metals industry—she once penned an article about manhole covers—to sellers of furs in the Garment District. Her financial condition improved, and in April of 1944, while she was working for the federal Office of War Information, she and her two roommates threw a party at which one of the guests was architect Robert Hyde Jacobs Jr. She married him a month later, and the pair raised two sons and one daughter.

Worked as Architecture Editor

In 1952 Jacobs took a job as an editor at the magazine Architectural Forum . "I went to Architectural Forum , and they said well, you're now our school and hospital expert," Jacobs recalled to Paul Goldberger, writing in American Scholar . "That was the first time I got suspicious of experts. I knew nothing, not even how to read plans." With her husband's help, Jacobs mastered the knowledge she needed.

In the optimistic atmosphere of 1950s America, planners believed that urban design had the power to ameliorate poverty and other social problems. Block after block of the older neighborhoods of many cities were leveled and replaced with high-rise towers in parklike settings, some of them with rents subsidized for poorer residents, others quite luxurious. The process went by the name of slum clearance, or, more politely, urban renewal. Jacobs, in her architecture magazine post, had a front row view of the process, which was superintended by an almost exclusively male corps of city government officials. She went on assignment to Philadelphia, where planning director Ed Bacon showed her around a new development.

"First he took me to a street where loads of people were hanging around on the street, on the stoops, having a good time of it, and he said, well, this is the street we're going to get rid of," she recalled to Goldberger. "That was the 'before' street. Then he showed me the 'after' street, all fixed up, and there was just one person on it, a bored little boy kicking a tire in the gutter. It was so grim that I would have been kicking a tire, too. But Mr. Bacon thought it had a beautiful vista." She began to delve more deeply into urban planning, and she contributed an article to a Fortune magazine series that was later collected into a book, The Exploding Metropolis . Jacobs's husband, along with William H. Whyte, her editor at Fortune , urged her to write a book expressing her ideas about what made a city healthy or unhealthy, and, armed with a Rockefeller Foundation grant, she took to the streets of New York, notebook in hand. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published by Random House in 1961.

The book offered a broadside against several generations of received wisdom, and it has often been grouped with other books of the 1960s, written by nonspecialists, that overturned established thinking in their fields—Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique or Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed , for example. Jacobs took aim at a complex of ideas she referred to as Radiant Garden City Beautiful, or RGCB. A special target was Swiss architect Le Corbusier (Charles Edouard Jeanneret-Gris), a builder of modernist cubes who advocated a clean separation between residential, commercial, and recreational zones. In Jacobs's view, it was a mixture of these functions, as citizens crossed paths and exchanged goods and news, that gave a neighborhood vitality. She even contended that theaters and music spaces should be integrated into the neighborhoods of the populations they served.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was not just a polemical attack, however; Jacobs also outlined what she saw as positive features of urban neighborhoods. They were fourfold. First, what would later be called mixed use was beneficial, with residential, retail, civic, and industrial buildings jumbled together and growing organically. Second, city blocks should be compact. Third, buildings should be diverse in age, condition, and size; Jacobs's ideas dovetailed effectively with the growing movement in favor of historic preservation. Finally, population should be dense. For Jacobs, the ideal neighborhood was often represented by her home of Greenwich Village, where she interacted with a wide range of individuals.

Opposed Expressway

In 1962, the year after The Death and Life of Great American Cities was published, Jacobs got the chance to move from the realm of theory into activism, when Greenwich Village was threatened by a proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway. The new road would have eliminated much of Washington Square Park and other Manhattan landmarks, and Jacobs soon emerged as a leader of residents opposed to the plan. The effort pitted Jacobs against New York's immensely powerful planning czar, Robert Moses, who did not receive news of the resistance gracefully. "There is nobody against this—NOBODY, NOBODY, NOBODY, but a bunch of … a bunch of MOTHERS," Jacobs recalled Moses saying during a meeting (according to Veronica Horwell of the London Guardian ). Nevertheless, Jacobs and her associates emerged victorious when New York Mayor John Lindsay killed the project in 1969.

Some of the opposition to Jacobs's ideas had a similarly sexist tinge, as when noted architecture writer Lewis Mumford reviewed The Death and Life of Great American Cities in the New Yorker under the title, "Mother Jacobs' Home Remedy for Urban Cancer." Other criticisms of the book have been more substantive, however. Her observations were centered mostly on the older neighborhoods of the United States Northeast (not only in New York, but also including Boston's North End). "But the problems of the 20th-century were vast and complicated," observed Nicolai Ourosoff in the New York Times . Ms. Jacobs had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars, which remains critical to the development of American cities." The ideas of Jacobs, a committed liberal and civil rights activist, ironically later found support among conservatives who worked to restrict governmental eminent domain powers. Jacobs was deeply suspicious of eminent domain condemnations of city neighborhoods, telling Bill Steigerwald of Reason that "the courts have never given the kind of overview to this that they should."

In 1968, at her husband's suggestion, Jacobs and her family moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, so that the couple's college-age sons could avoid being drafted and sent to serve in the Vietnam War. Jacobs remained in Canada for the rest of her life, later becoming a citizen of that country. Within months of moving to Toronto she had become involved in an ultimately successful effort to stop the building of an expressway that would have sliced through the city's Chinatown, and she found in Toronto a city that exemplified many of the principles she had espoused. She devoted many of her energies to issues facing her adopted country, and in 1980 she penned The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty , a controversial book that favored the secession of French-speaking Quebec from the rest of Canada. For Jacobs, the issue of Quebec's separatist aspirations was less one of cultural identity than one of local control.

Jacobs continued to write for the rest of her life, and she had two books in progress when she died in Toronto on April 25, 2006, at the age of 89. Her other works are much less well known than The Death and Life of Great American Cities , but they often contain fresh perspectives born of Jacobs's common-sense approach and autodidact procedures. Most of her books dealt with cities, but she turned increasingly to the macro dimension of urban existence rather than the micro level explored in her first book. The Economy of Cities (1969) disputed the common contention that great cities grew from the roots of productive agriculture; more often, Jacobs noted, innovations in agriculture, since the beginnings of human society, have depended on technology perfected in urban settings. Jacobs's Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) examined what Jacobs saw as an often intrinsic conflict between the organic development of cities and the ideologically driven constraints of policies implemented at the national level.

The last book published during Jacobs's lifetime was the gloomy Dark Age Ahead , issued in 2004; in that book Jacobs contended that the fundamental building blocks of North American society—community and family, higher education, science, taxation, and the influence of well-educated professionals—were eroding. By that time it was commonplace for young people graduating from a college or university to head for one of the North American cities with just the sort of diverse, well-preserved urban neighborhoods Jane Jacobs had championed: New York, Boston, Chicago, New Orleans, or San Francisco, for example. Those young people were Jacobs's intellectual progeny, and the continued existence of many of the neighborhoods themselves was her legacy.


Alexiou, Alice Sparberg, Jane Jacobs, Urban Visionary , HarperCollins, 2006.

Jacobs, Jane, The Death and Life of Great American Cities , Random House, 1961.

Jacobs, Jane, The Economy of Cities , Random House, 1969.


American Scholar , Autumn 2006.

Architecture , June 2006.

Economist (U.S.), May 13, 2006.

Guardian (London, England), April 28, 2006).

Independent (London, England), June 3, 2006.

International Herald Tribune , April 27, 2006.

New York Times , April 26, 2006; April 30, 2006.

Reason , June 2001.

Time Canada , May 24, 2004.

Times (London, England), April 27, 2006.

Winnipeg Free Press , April 29, 2006.


Contemporary Authors Online, Gale, 2006, reproduced in Biography Resource Center, Thomson Gale, 2006, http://www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (October 31, 2006).

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