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Jane Jacobs, OC, O.Ont was an Americanmarker-born Canadian urbanist, writer and activist. She is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States. The book has been credited with reaching beyond planning issues to influence the spirit of the times.

Along with her well-known printed works, Jacobs is equally well known for organizing grass-roots efforts to block urban-renewal projects that would have destroyed local neighborhoods. She was instrumental in the eventual cancellation of the Lower Manhattan Expressway, and after moving to Canada in 1968, equally influential in canceling the Spadina Expressway and the associated network of highways under construction.

American years

Jane Butzner was born in Scrantonmarker, Pennsylvaniamarker, the daughter of a doctor and a former teacher and nurse, who were Protestant in a Catholic town—adherents of a minority religion. After graduating from Scranton’s Central High School, she took an unpaid position as the assistant to the women’s page editor at the Scranton Tribune. A year later, in the middle of the Great Depression, she left Scranton for New York Citymarker.

During her first several years in the city, Jacobs held a variety of jobs, working mainly as a stenographer and freelance writer, often writing about working districts in the city. These experiences, she later said, “… gave me more of a notion of what was going on in the city and what business was like, what work was like.” Her first job was for a trade magazine, first as a secretary, then as an editor. She also sold articles to the “Sunday Herald Tribune.” She then became a feature writer for the Office of War Information. While working there she met an architect named Robert Hyde Jacobs whom she married in 1944. Together they had two sons and a daughter.

She studied at Columbia University’s extension school (now the School of General Studies) for two years, taking courses in geology, zoology, law, political science, and economics. About the freedom to study her wide-ranging interests, she said:

On March 25, 1952, Jacobs responded to Conrad E. Snow, chairman of the Loyalty Security Board at the United States Department of Statemarker. In her foreword to her answer she said:

Opposing expressways and supporting neighborhoods were common themes in her life. In 1962, she was the chairperson of the “Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway”, when the downtown expressway plan was killed. She was again involved in stopping the Lower Manhattan Expressway and was arrested during a demonstration on April 10, 1968. Jacobs opposed Robert Moses, who had already forced through the Cross-Bronx Expressway and other roadways against neighborhood opposition. A late 1990s Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) documentary series on New York’s history devoted a full hour of its fourteen-hours to the battle between Moses and Jacobs, although Robert Caro's highly critical biography of Moses, The Power Broker, gives only passing mention to this event, despite Jacobs's strong influence on Caro.

Canadian life

In 1968, Jacobs moved to Torontomarker, where she lived until her death. She decided to leave the United States in part because of her objection to the Vietnam War and worry about the fate of her two draft-age sons. She and her husband chose Toronto because it was pleasant and offered him work opportunities.

She quickly became a leading figure in her new city and helped stop the proposed Spadina Expressway. A frequent theme of her work was to ask whether we are building cities for people or for cars. She was arrested twice during demonstrations. She also had considerable influence on the regeneration of the St. Lawrence neighborhood, a housing project regarded as a success. She became a Canadian citizen in 1974, and she later told writer James Howard Kunstler that dual citizenship was not possible at the time, implying that her US citizenship was lost.

In 1980, she offered an urbanistic perspective on Québecmarker’s sovereignty in her book The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Separation.

Jacobs was an advocate of a Province of Toronto to separate the city proper from Ontario. Jacobs said, “Cities, to thrive in the 21st century, must separate themselves politically from their surrounding areas.”

She was selected to be an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her seminal writings and thought-provoking commentaries on urban development. The Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association awarded her its Outstanding Lifetime Contribution award in 2002.

In 1997, the City of Toronto sponsored a conference titled “Jane Jacobs: Ideas That Matter”, which led to a book by the same name. At the end of the conference, the Jane Jacobs Prize was created. It includes an annual stipend of $5,000 for three years to be given to “celebrate Toronto’s original, unsung heroes — by seeking out citizens who are engaged in activities that contribute to the city’s vitality”.

Jacobs never shied away from expressing her political support for specific candidates. She opposed the 1997 amalgamation of the cities of Metro Toronto, fearing that individual neighbourhoods would have less power with the new structure. She backed an ecologist, Tooker Gomberg, who lost Toronto’s 2000 mayoralty race, and was an adviser to David Miller's successful mayoral campaign in 2003, at a time when he was seen as a longshot.

She died in Toronto Western Hospitalmarker at the age of 89, on 25 April 2006, apparently of a stroke.She was survived by a brother, James Butzner; two sons, James and Ned, and a daughter, Burgin Jacobs; by two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. Upon her death her family’s statement noted:


Despite of the virtuosity, influence, and public and intellectual awareness of Jane Jacob's first book, she herself believes that her later works are historically more important and earth shaking. She concludes that the most important sociological mechanism of wealth creation is urban import replacement, supported by urban export generation.

As a tribute to Jacobs, the Rockefeller Foundation announced on February 9, 2007 the creation of the Jane Jacobs Medal, “to recognize individuals who have made a significant contribution to thinking about urban design, specifically in New York City.” From the mid 1950s to the mid 1960s, the foundation’s Humanities Division sponsored an “Urban Design Studies” research program, of which Jacobs was the best known grantee.. In September 2007 the Rockefeller Foundation awarded Barry Benepe, co-founder of NYC’s Green Market program and a founding member of Transportation Alternatives, with the inaugural Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership and a $100,000 cash prize. The inaugural Jane Jacobs Medal for new Ideas and Activism was awarded to Omar Freilla, the founder of Green Worker Cooperatives in the South Bronx; Mr. Freilla donated his $100,000 to his organization.

In May 2008, the Rockefeller Foundation announced that Peggy Shepard, executive director of West Harlem Environmental Action, would receive the 2008 Jane Jacobs Medal for Lifetime Leadership and Alexie Torres-Fleming, founder of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice, would receive the award for New Ideas and Activism. Both women will receive their medals and $100,000 awards at a dinner ceremony in September 2008 in New York City.

The City of Toronto proclaimed Friday May 4, 2007 as Jane Jacobs Day in Toronto. Two dozen free walks around and about Toronto neighbourhoods, dubbed “Jane’s Walk”, were held on Saturday May 5, 2007. A Jane’s Walk event was held in New York in on September 29 and 30, 2007 and, for 2008, the event has spread to eight cities and towns across Canada.

She was also famous for her saying, “Eyes on the Street”.

The Municipal Art Society of New York has partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to host an exhibit focusing on “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” which opened at the MAS on September 26, 2007. The exhibit aims to educate the public on her writings and activism and uses tools to encourage new generations to become active in issues involving their own neighborhoods. An accompanying exhibit publication includes essays and articles by such architecture critics, artists, activists and journalists as Malcolm Gladwell, Reverend Billy, Robert Neuwirth, Tom Wolfe, Thomas de Monchaux, and William McDonough. Many of these contributors are participating in a series of panel discussions on “Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” taking place at venues across the city in Fall, 2007.


Jane Jacobs spent her life studying cities. Her books include:

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is her single-most influential book and possibly the most influential American book on urban planning and cities. Widely read by both planning professionals and the general public, the book is a strong critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s, which, she claimed, destroyed communities and created isolated, unnatural urban spaces. Jacobs advocated the abolition of zoning laws and restoration of free markets in land, which would result in dense, mixed-use neighborhoods and frequently cited New York Citymarker’s Greenwich Villagemarker as an example of a vibrant urban community.

Robert Caro has cited it as the strongest influence on The Power Broker, his Pulitzer-winning biography of Robert Moses, though Caro does not mention Jacobs by name even once in the book despite Jacobs' battles with Moses over his proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Beyond the practical lessons in city design and planning that Death and Life offers, the theoretical underpinnings of the work challenge the modern development mindset. Jane Jacobs defends her positions with persuasive common sense and undeniable anecdote.

The Economy of Cities

The thesis of this book is that cities are the primary drivers of economic development.

Jacobs' main argument is that explosive economic growth derives from urban import replacement. Import replacement is when a city begins to locally produce goods which it formerly imported, e.g., Tokyo bicycle factories replacing Tokyo bicycle importers in the 1800s. Jacobs claims that import replacement builds up local infrastructure, skills, and production. Jacobs also claims that the increased produce is exported to other cities, giving those other cities a new opportunity to engage in import replacement, thus producing a positive cycle of growth.

In an interview with Bill Steigerwald in Reason Magazine (06/01), Jacobs said that if she is remembered for being a great intellectual she will be remembered not for her work concerning city planning, but for the discovery of import replacement. Critics erroneously claim that her ideas parrot the idea of import substitution advanced earlier by scholars such as Andre Gunder Frank. Import substitution was a national economic theory implying that if a nation substituted its imports with national production the nation would become wealthier, whereas Jacob's idea is entirely about cities and could be called urban import substitution. However, even this would lead to confusion since in practice, import substitution in India and Latin America were government subsidized and mandated, whereas Jacobs' concept of import replacement is a free market process of discovery and division of labor within a city.

In the second part of the book Jacobs argues that cities preceded agriculture. She argues that in cities trade in wild animals and grains allowed for the initial division of labor necessary for the discovery of husbandry and agriculture; these discoveries then moved out of the city due to land competition. Another interpretation of history, generally and erroneously considered to be contradictory to Jacobs' is supported by Marxist archaeologist Vere Gordon Childe and in recent times by another historical materialist Charles Keith Maisels These writers argue that agriculture preceded cities. The apparent oppostion between Childe and Jacobs theories rests in their definition of 'city,' 'civilization,' or 'urban.' Childe, like other materialists like Maisels or Henri Lefevre defines 'urban' or 'civilization' as Synoecism--as a literate, socially stratified, monolithic political community, whereas, as one can see from The Economy of Cities or from Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jacobs defines city purely along the lines of geographically dense trade giving way to entrepreneurial discovery and subsequent improvements in the division of labor. Without the requirements of literacy, monumental building, or the signs of specialized civil and armed forces, 'cities' can be accurately be interpreted to exists thousands of years before when Childe and Maisels place them.

Cities and the Wealth of Nations

Cities and the Wealth of Nations makes the attempt at doing to all of economics what Death and the Life did to modern planning. It hasn't received the same attention. Beginning with a concise treatment of classical economics, this book challenges one of the fundamental assumptions of the greatest economists. Classical (and Neo-classical) economists consider the nation-state to be the main player in macroeconomics. Jacobs makes a forceful argument that it is not the nation-state, rather it is the city which is the true player in this world wide game. She restates the idea of import replacement from her earlier book “The Economy of Cities”, while speculating on the further ramifications of considering the city first and the nation second, or not at all.

The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty-Association

In 1979 and 1980, Jane Jacobs reached the conclusion that Quebec's sovereignty was necessary because of her understanding of how cities emerge and how they influence the development of nations. She looked specifically at Montreal and Toronto and foresaw the regionalization of Montreal, making it into a sort of feeder for Toronto as regional airports are to a hub. "In sum," she wrote, "Montreal cannot afford to behave like other Canadian regional cities without doing great damage to the economic well-being of the Québécois. It must instead become a creative economic centre in its own right… Yet there is probably no chance of this happening if Quebec remains a province."

Systems of Survival

Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics moves outside of the city, studying the moral underpinnings of work. As with her other work, she used an observational approach. This book is written as a Platonic dialogue. It appears that she (as described by characters in her book) took newspaper clippings of moral judgements related to work, collected and sorted them to find that they fit two patterns of moral behaviour that were mutually exclusive. She calls these two patterns “Moral Syndrome A”, or commercial moral syndrome, and “Moral Syndrome B,” or guardian moral syndrome. She claims that the commercial moral syndrome is applicable to business owners, scientists, farmers, and traders. Similarly, she claims that the guardian moral syndrome is applicable to government, charities, hunter-gatherers, and religious institutions. She also claims that these Moral Syndromes are fixed, and do not fluctuate over time.

It is important to stress that Jane Jacobs is providing a theory about the morality of work, and not all moral ideas. Moral ideas that are not included in her syndrome are applicable to both syndromes.

Jane Jacobs goes on to describe what happens when these two moral syndromes are mixed, showing the work underpinnings of the Mafia and communism, and what happens when New York Subway Police are paid bonuses here — reinterpreted slightly as a part of the larger analysis.

The Nature of Economies

The Nature of Economies, a dialog between friends concerning the premise: “human beings exist wholly within nature as part of the natural order in every respect” (p ix), argues that the same principles underlie both ecosystems and economies: “development and co-development through differentiations and their combinations; expansion through diverse, multiple uses of energy; and self-maintenance through self-refueling” (p82).

Jacobs’ characters discuss the four methods by which “dynamically stable systems” may evade collapse: “bifurcations; positive-feedback loops; negative-feedback controls; and emergency adaptations” (p86). Their conversations also cover the “double nature of fitness for survival” (traits to avoid destroying one’s own habitat as well as success in competition to feed and breed, p119), and unpredictability including the butterfly effect characterized in terms of multiplicity of variables as well as disproportional response to cause, and self-organization where “a system can be making itself up as it goes along” (p137).

Through the dialogue, Jacobs’ characters explore and examine the similarities between the functioning of ecosystems and economies. Topics include environmental and economic development, growth and expansion, and how economies and environments keep themselves alive through “self-refueling.” Jacobs also comments on the nature of economic and biological diversity and its role in the development and growth of the two kinds of systems.

The book is infused with many real-world economic and biological examples, which help keep the book “down to earth” and comprehensible, if dense. Concepts are furnished with both economic and biological examples, showing their coherence in both worlds.

One particularly interesting insight is the creation of “something from nothing”—an economy from nowhere . In the biological world, free energy is given through sunlight, but in the economic world human creativity and natural resources supply this free energy, or at least starter energy. Another interesting insight is the creation of economic diversity through the combination of different technologies, for example the typewriter and television as inputs and outputs of a computer system : this can lead to the creation of “new species of work” .

Dark Age Ahead

Published in 2004 by Random House, in Dark Age Ahead Jacobs argued that “North American” civilization showed signs of spiral of decline comparable to the collapse of the Roman empire. Her thesis focused on “five pillars of our culture that we depend on to stand firm,” which can be summarized as the nuclear family (but also community), education, science, representational government and taxes, and corporate and professional accountability. As the title suggests, her outlook was far more pessimistic than in her previous books. However, in the conclusion she admitted that, “At a given time it is hard to tell whether forces of cultural life or death are in the ascendancy. Is suburban sprawl, with its murders of communities and wastes of land, time, and energy, a sign of decay? Or is rising interest in means of overcoming sprawl a sign of vigor and adaptability in North American culture? Arguably, either could turn out to be true.”

Activism in later years

During the 2003 Toronto mayoral campaign, Jacobs helped lobby against the construction of a bridge to join the city’s waterfront to Toronto City Center Airport (TCCA).[10974] Following the election, Toronto City Council’s earlier decision to approve the bridge was reversed and bridge construction project was stopped. TCCA did upgrade the ferry service and the airport is still in operation as of 2008.

Jacobs was also active in a fight against a plan of Royal St. Georges College (an established school very close to Jacobs' long-time residence in Toronto’s Annex district) to reconfigure its facilities. Jacobs suggested not only that the redesign be stopped but also the school be forced from the neighbourhood entirely.[10975] Although Toronto council initially rejected the school’s plans, the decision was later reversed — and the project was given the go-ahead by the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) when opponents failed to produce credible witnesses and tried to withdraw from the case during the hearing.[10976]

Criticism of Jane Jacobs

Toronto businesses have had mixed feelings about Jacobs. Some have applauded her leading the way to a thriving urban core. Others have pointed to higher growth in suburban areas surrounding Toronto that have lower taxes and debt, whereas Toronto’s debt is growing. Toronto’s mayor argued in 2005 that this trend has more to do with inequalities in provincial tax policy than Jacobs’ perceived threat to business growth.

Supporters of Jacobs point out that latent costs have not been taken into consideration. Measures promoted by Jacobs such as urban living and cycling have been argued to be impractical due to skyrocketing downtown land value, although proponents counter that this is the case in the few American cities that have actually maintained a large core population. Jacobs’ supporters also claim that there is a lag in time before actual costs of sprawl catch up to suburban communities. They feel it is necessary when implementing such policies to implement them to an entire metropolitan region, and not merely the central municipality.

Another criticism is that Jacobs’ approach leads to gentrification: an observed urban social process whereby urban economic development leads to old neighbourhoods becoming too expensive for the original population once “renewed.” The previous inhabitants are replaced by yuppies and “muppies,” who enjoy the “semi-bohemian bourgeois lifestyle” that sometimes arises. This issue, however, was addressed and criticized in Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Jacobs refers to this phenomenon as the “self destruction of diversity,” and lists it as a developmental obstacle that cities must overcome. Moreover, the gentrification of the kind of areas championed by Jacobs has been heralded by some commentators as a vindication of her stance, and illustrates instead the failure of planners and builders to respond to demand for such models of urban development.

See also


Books by Jacobs

Books about Jacobs

  • Alexiou, Alice Sparberg. Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary (2006) New Brunswick: Rutgers. Toronto: HarperCollins. ISBN 978-0-8135-3792-4
  • Flint, Anthony. "Wrestling with Moses" (2009) Random House. ISBN 978-1-4000-6674-2

External links


Audio and video



  • Peter L. Laurence (2006) “Contradictions and complexities: Jane Jacobs’ and Robert Venturi’s complexity theories”, Journal of Architectural Education, 59 (3), pp. 49–60.
  • Simon Jenkins (2006) Adapt, don't destroy: Leeds is the template to revive our scarred cities. The most unsung hero of 20th-century ideas died last week. In a single, devastating book Jane Jacobs crammed insights in human behaviour as deep as any by Freud, Keynes or Hayek.,,1767895,00.html
  • Pierre Desrochers and Gert-Jan Hospers (Spring 2007) “Cities and the Economic Development of Nations: An Essay on Jane Jacobs’ Contribution to Economic Theory,” Canadian Journal of Regional Science, vol. 30, no. 1 , pp. 115–130.
  • Pierre Desrochers, “The Death and Life of a Reluctant Urban Icon,” A Review Essay on Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary by Alice Sparberg Alexiou (Toronto: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006). Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 21, no. 3 (Fall 2007), pp. 115–36.
  • Ellerman, David 2005. “How Do We Grow?: Jane Jacobs on Diversification and Specialization.” Challenge. 48 (5 May-June): 50-83.

Obituaries and remembrances

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