The Gopsel According To Jane Jacobs

Urbanism's prophet Jane Jacobs in action in the late 1960s.

Great cities don’t happen by accident. Whether the choices are as big as the Lafayette Connector or as small as a street bench, it is critical to make the right choice. In order to get the kind of city we talk about wanting, we have to first understand that great cities are complex systems of functional order; the sum of many small, but intentional and intelligent contributions chosen for the benefit of your experience: wide, shady sidewalks, well-connected street networks and vibrant businesses. 

It may seem like common sense now, but it took Jane Jacobs to make us see these building blocks of a great city in her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, before we could make sense of the combination of these fine-grain elements and incite a new way of building cities — now known as urbanism. A new documentary, Citizen Jane | Battle for the City, documents the tumultuous birth of Jacob’s influence on city-building, pitched into an ongoing battle for the soul of city life still very much raging today.

In 1960s New York City, Jacobs battled the infamous Robert Moses, the city’s construction manager, and the housing projects and urban expressways that formed the spearhead of urban renewal. She harried Moses at every turn, refusing to back down from the PR fight, hounding the socially and economically divisive projects Moses conceived in the name of progress. Urban expressways built during the Urban Renewal movement of the 1960s, which some labeled as “Negro Removal,” are today’s crumbling infrastructure, seen in virtually every American community, including Lafayette. Ill-conceived, mega-road projects like the Evangeline Thruway wrecked the human-scale neighborhood fabric and left a legacy of racially-divided disinvestment. 

Jacobs’ activism predicted what we now know about the effects of urban highways. Communities like Lafayette and Shreveport, deciding the fate of long-planned urban interstate projects, now revisit that issue with the benefit of Jacob’s insight, which arguably spawned an entire way of thinking about city planning and city livelihood: urbanism. We know how an elevated interstate affects the community it cuts through. Seeing this film should be a prerequisite to anyone weighing in on such a monumental undertaking, if conversation about such a decision is to be honest.

For the most part, Citizen Jane | Battle for the City is a one-sided rallying cry for those skeptical of the wisdom of planning by maps alone. But most of all, it is a warning: If we are not protecting our own neighborhoods, we’ll never be able to restore what was lost once it’s gone.

“You have the ability to question,” Jacobs tells us through the ages. “Protest against stultification and the status quo.”

Not surprisingly, given the title, the documentary fawns over Jacobs as a tenacious defender of the public good, cast in the mold of a storybook do-gooder. Moses’ own words make him a perfectly detestable villain.

“Just because people come to agitate you, doesn’t mean you don’t build the expressway.” Robert Moses 

More important, Citizen Jane voices Jacobs as a kind of reactionary alternative to Moses’ urban renewal, at the time the only standing philosophy of city-building. He relied on large-scale infrastructure projects, looking at the conceptual city as the builder’s sandbox, a place to erect structures with no consideration of the human experience. Jacobs, by contrast, believed that cities are about people, public spaces and the streets, then a novel concept that set the foundation for today’s public processes around city-building.

Jacobs taught us that we can let things happen to our neighborhood, or we can be part of deciding what happens. “You can reject lines being drawn around your homes,” said Jacobs. Sage advice for any city in any century.