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Jane Jacobs's Legacy: 2016 Edition

New York magazine offers a long reflection on the shifting lessons offered by Jane Jacobs after a year of new books and a re-emergence into the public eye.
November 4, 2016, 2pm PDT | James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell
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Phil Stanziola

According to Justin Davidson, "the paladin of the little people still looms large on the cityscape." Davidson is referring to Jane Jacobs, of course, whose name won't be unfamiliar to any Planetizen reader. Some of the new entries into the Jane Jacobs bibliography, however, might be news. "Robert Kanigel’s new biography, Eyes on the Street (Knopf), and a new collection of her essays, Vital Little Plans (Random House), edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, have caused her prestige to spike," explains Davidson.

In a thorough examination of Jacobs's legacy, and its effects for cities, Davidson starts with the traditional narrative of civic empowerment and neighborhood-level advocacy:

Most of us now see the city the way she did, noting incremental changes that alter the topography of our lives: the hardware store that closes, the sandwich shop that opens, the tenement that makes way for a tower. Bike activists, community gardeners, and community organizers put her lessons into practice every day. So do the bureaucrats and planners she abhorred. Her influence is ubiquitous; her ideas have percolated from the radical to the self-evident.

In addition to the local passion she inspired, Jacobs also had an effect on the public opinion with regard to the professional practice of planning. "To her, planning was essentially corrupt, an exercise of thickheaded power by self-important men who blundered expensively into disaster," writes Davidson. "She was not wrong."

Bit now, says Davidson, cities have changed so much and so quickly, that it's time to re-evaluate what Jane would do, and whether, in a new of world of homogenized, corporate affluence and reactionary, NIMBY obstruction, whether "the best way to achieve a Jacobean vision is with un-Jacobean means." That is, argues, Davidson, that now more planning is needed.

After describing Janette Sadik-Khan's book Streetfight: Handbook for an Urban Revolution as "superb" and citing it as an example of the new playbook for planners and urban quality of life, Davidson also leaves the reader with another controversial statement about where Jacobs might feel most at home in 2016.

Jacobs loved cities at a time when that was an unfashionable emotion. Today, a money-fueled urban renaissance bypasses unpromising urban centers and rolls into expensive ones, often invoking her name. But while different camps squabble over her legacy in dense downtowns, a person of her contrarian disposition might find delight in suburbs these days for precisely the same reasons she loved Hudson Street: because big plans don’t take get much traction there, and because that’s where new mixtures of people are fashioning the reality they choose. With sidewalks or without.

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Published on Thursday, November 3, 2016 in New York
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