Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 18, 2021
Jesper Meijling and Tigran Haas, eds. Essays on Jane Jacobs Trans. Julie Martin. Stockholm: Bokförlaget Stolpe, 2020. 300 pp.; 60 color ills. Cloth $30.00 (9789198523690)

This compendium offers a wide-angle view of the life and work of activist and writer Jane Jacobs (1916–2006). The volume, edited by Jesper Meijling and Tigran Haas, consists of fifteen chapters interspersed with carefully selected full-page images drawn from both Jacobs’s work and wider contexts. Through these images and the short, provocative essays, the book asks the reader to reconsider the work of Jacobs in a contemporary context in relation to how we read and understand cities. Beyond a eulogy or simple celebration, therefore, the texts suggest fresh insights, open up new questions, and develop an original set of critiques.

As the editors point out, Jacobs is most well known for her seminal text The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). The book offered a virulent critique of urban-planning policy, which Jacobs blamed for the decline of US cities. Since first circulating as an oppositional reading of formal planning professions, the text has become a widely used and taught resource in architecture and urban studies. Yet, Jacobs published both before and after this book, and she was active in local politics in New York and Toronto. The authors argue for revisiting Jacobs holistically to gain further depth on her work; as such, the collection suggests pushing against urban studies’ trend for new theories and returning instead to the urban theorists archive. The authors aim to situate Jacobs within a wider literature and broaden the canon by thinking through her writings and her personal life, and putting her work into conversation with contemporaries such as Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, and Ruth Glass.

The diverse chapters offer varying insights on Jacobs’s oeuvre and draw out some of the central contradictions in her relationship to institutions. Gentrification is a key conceptual framework through with her work is critiqued, along with the related focus on urban form that was later taken up by the New Urbanists. The idea of the city as an ecology or biological system is shown to be particularly relevant alongside current understandings of climate change, while other chapters argue that a key absence in Jacobs’s work is a considered response to issues of race and segregation in the design, planning, and functioning of North American cities.

Peter L. Laurence’s essay asks a central question: Who was Jane Jacobs? He offers an overview of her life, from her birth in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, to her death in Toronto as a Canadian citizen in 2006. He suggests that her life was defined by numerous contradictions, which are evident in the breadth of interests throughout her work, her changing views over her career, and in her personal life. One of these is evident in the lasting impact of Death and Life in academic circles: Jacobs herself did not have a university degree, and when the book was first written, many academics initially did not take her seriously. As Laurence notes, “The book appeared at a time when universities and libraries were segregated by gender, let alone race, and when the term ‘urban design’ was still a neologism” (43).

In a chapter titled “Diversity, Market Value and Gentrification,” Catharina Thörn writes that, for Jacobs, it was city planners’ inability to see the “street perspective” that was the biggest threat to the city she wanted to flourish; her personal activism was thus characterized by resistance to large-scale planning. Thörn further notes that Jacobs’s vision of what a city should be, however, was based on her own neighborhood, a narrow view of middle-class urbanity. Thörn suggests that in contrast, the urban theorist Ruth Glass understood the city as inherently a contradictory space of conflict. She writes, “According to Glass it is not possible to understand a city only from how it seems to work in the street—it requires an understanding of the city’s social stratification, economy, migration, patterns, culture etc.” (80). For Thörn, Jacobs’s observational strength was also her analytical weakness. She had the ability to observe city life on the ground, yet, unlike Glass, she failed to understand conflicting interests such as class, race, and associated financial speculation. Glass recognized that “gentrification is ultimately about power and resources—who is given space in the city and on what terms” (81); Thörn suggests Jacobs fell short of understanding that which is not always observable at the street scale. Ultimately, however, Thörn asks us to consider the lasting impact of these foundational women to urban studies: she argues that they both challenged the establishment and eventually led to fundamental change in their fields, despite initially being derided by these same spaces.

Jill L. Grant expands on Jacobs’s complex relationship to urban design disciplines. Grant notes that Jacobs was a key influence for New Urbanism, which draws on her idea of dense, walkable, and mixed urban settings. For Grant, the easy appropriation of Jacobs’s community design approach had perhaps to do with Jacobs attributing too much to the physical form of a space; she writes, “While conceding that physical form likely played a role in the urban qualities Jacobs saw in the 1950s, I’m not convinced that form merited the supremacy Jacobs gave it” (109). Overall, though, she argues that New Urbanism oversimplified Jacobs and overlooked her complex insights into time, scale, and control as important to vibrant urban environments.

In an alternative argument, Ola Andersson asserts that Jacobs did foresee the city as valuable to economic development, a view that was ahead of its time. Saskia Sassen’s essay also suggests that Jacobs understood the city as a complex space; she notes that Jacobs taught urban scholars how to look at cities closely, in deeper and more complex ways, and to understand urban space as central to urban economies. Peter Elmlund similarly expands on Jacobs’s methodological input, pointing out the importance of how she wrote. He notes that Jacobs is rarely acknowledged for her story-telling technique, but that this was central to her approach, a key aspect of which was her knowing how to write for a wider public, raising complex issues and analyses in straightforward ways.

Beyond an understanding of city space as complex and vital to how urban economies function, for several authors, Jacobs’s ideas around cities as a system are worthy of revisiting. Ebba Högström notes that Jacobs’s city-planning theories are often treated as a kind of recipe book of her “greatest hits,” such as the importance of the sidewalk, “eyes on the street,” short blocks, and “shops on the ground.” Högström suggests that an overlooked argument in Jacobs’s work is that urban development is part of complex systems; she believes Jacobs’s view was limited to particular city areas and did not contend with the city’s relationships to spaces beyond its physical limits, making her focus on the local both a strength and a weakness. In conclusion, Högström argues that we should read Jacobs as a relational urban theorist.

According to Michael W. Mehaffy, Jacobs’s call for a “web of thinking” and her interest in the city as a series of dynamic, biological relationships were far ahead of her time, and are relevant to today’s climate crises. Mehaffy writes that Jacobs was not suggesting rigid or formulaic responses to urban life, but instead she understood the city as a living system. Vania Ceccato then asks what it means to think of digital space in contemporary cities; she considers not “eyes on the street” but “apps on the street,” reading Jacobs’s writing as a methodology for responding to city life and its dynamism and asking what it means to consider Jacobs in a time of digital surveillance.

A central critique of Jacobs’s work is that it does not adequately deal with questions of race in North American cities. Per Svensson puts this down to Jacobs being a “bona fide liberal” (93), limited by her political worldview. He cites Marshall Berman, who notes “there [were] no ‘blacks’ in her quarter” (97). Svensson therefore suggests that beneath Jacobs’s outspoken interest in diversity is a nostalgia for a particular kind of racialized and classed family neighborhood. In one of the essays most critical of Jacobs, Tigran Haas argues that she had trouble seeing the bigger picture and structural complexity of the urban, asserting she did not understand the importance of infrastructure or scale and therefore could not comprehend the centrality of race and segregation policies in US cities. Haas draws on Sharon Zukin to suggest that Jacobs’s limited political position has allowed her work to be co-opted by developers on the political right, and is in danger of promoting gentrification with its emphasis on urban and architectural form.

Overall, this collection offers a lucid account of Jacobs’s life and work in a well-designed volume. The essays ask us to think about Jacobs beyond the popular sound bites, suggesting a deeper reading of her contributions to urban theory and design, a relational interpretation of her oeuvre, and an understanding of the methodological implications of the city as a distinct and dynamic space, always of its time. Ultimately, the contrasting positions in this book present the intended overview of the larger Jacobs and a response to her complexity as activist, academic, and writer.

Huda Tayob
Senior Lecturer, University of Cape Town