Women of Liberty: Jane Jacobs
Religion & Liberty Online

Women of Liberty: Jane Jacobs

(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)

The lives and deaths of cities in America is certainly topical. Drive through Detroit if you don’t think so. On one hand, block after block of decimated homes create a landscape of, let’s be honest, death. On the other, people in the city forge ahead, turning empty city blocks into burgeoning urban gardens, seeking out entrepreneurial options in cheap real-estate and office leases. Do the lives and deaths of cities “just happen” or is there planning involved?

Jane Jacobs, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, speaking out against what constituted much of urban planning. She said, in one interview, that urban planners were rather “hopeless”:

The chief planner of Philadelphia was showing me around. First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy. He was kicking a tire in the gutter. The planner told me that they were progressing to the next street over, where we had come from, which he obviously regarded as disgraceful. I said that all the people were over there, that there were no people here, and what did he think of that? What he obviously would have liked was groups of people standing and admiring the vistas that he had created. You could see that nothing else mattered to him. So I realized that not only did he and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or a humane street, but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care.

Her next book, The Economy of Cities, drew criticism from economists due to Jacobs’ insistence that small businesses were vital to cities. In another work, Systems of Survival, Jacobs developed a viewpoint of economics and commerce that she said relied on efficiency, competition, thrift, honesty and the tacit understanding that agreements would be kept. Jacobs was critical of government projects that attempted to alleviate poverty, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, saying,

Jacobs was not simply an urban planner, in that she wanted to see beautiful cities with abundant park space and open areas for community-building; she understood the crucial role cities play in economies. She had great respect for the working class, not only for the economic responsibilities they held in creating jobs and providing services, but also that these people needed and deserved nice places to live and work.
Jane Jacobs presented a unique vision of city life in the 20th century, one that should still inform us today. Cities matter, for the life of the people that live and work there, and for the economics involved in visionary planning of urban areas.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.