Jane Jacobs, 1916–2006: Voice for Neighborhood Life
25 April 2006 (collegiateway.org) — Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, died today in Toronto at the age of 89. Although she did not write specifically about university life and architecture, Jacobs was a relentless critic of authoritarian master planners who would bulldoze entire neighborhoods and destroy local businesses in the cause of “redevelopment.” Her emphasis on the importance of small, diverse, mixed-use communities built to a human scale resonates strongly with many of the ideals of the residential college movement. In the New York Times obituary linked above (free registration required for access), Douglas Martin writes:
In a visit to Philadelphia, she noticed that the streets of a [public housing] project were deserted while an older, nearby street was crowded.
“So, I got very suspicious of this whole thing,” she said in an interview with The Toronto Star in 1997. “I pointed that out to the designer, but it was absolutely uninteresting to him. How things worked didn’t interest him.
Her doubts increased after William Kirk, the head worker of Union Settlement in East Harlem, taught her new ways of seeing neighborhoods. She came to see prevalent planning notions, which involved bulldozing low-rise housing in poor neighborhoods and building tall apartment buildings surrounded by open space to replace them, as a superstition akin to early 19th-century physicians’ belief in bloodletting.
“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” she wrote in “Death and Life,” “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”
John Ruskin has some good company today.