Deconstructing Saint Jane

The iconic urban thinker has influenced generations of planners, but how do her ideas hold up in an age of massive upheaval and economic inequality?

March 14, 2021, 11:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction


Jane Jacobs

Phil Stanziola / Wikimedia Commons

Writing in Urban Omnibus, Jennifer Hock, Nathan Storring, and Samuel Zipp take stock of the legacy of the so-called "patron saint of city planners," that powerful voice for neighborhood-level urbanism, Jane Jacobs.

While Jacobs' observations on the qualities of vibrant neighborhoods once served as the paragon of urbanist ideals, recently some critics have argued that her ideas are "a relic" that has been "rendered useless in a time of huge-scale urban and global problems." The building blocks she wrote about have become codified "lifestyle amenities for real estate boosterism, instruments of accumulation in the quivers of urban developers" that are created and manipulated to sell high-priced properties to those who can afford them. Whereas Jacobs relentlessly believed in the power of cities as "decentralized, dynamic, always unpredictable human system[s]," activists today argue that too many aspects of "good" urbanism have been captured by "the forces of neoliberalism."

Her failure to address the role of race in urban politics and policies remains a glaring blind spot in her work, but Hock argues that her ideas remain relevant in helping readers understand how to observe and appreciate their city. "We need to bring Jacobs into the 21st century by placing her in dialogue with writers who have thought deeply about the ways in which racism is implicated in the 'sidewalk ballet.'" Saint Jane's ideas may, in some instances, be outdated or myopic, but her clear-eyed observations of city life and emphasis on small-scale decision making and civic duty continue to offer valuable lessons for today's urbanists.

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