In a column for The Wall Street Journal today, Reason’s Leonard Gilroy Given examines Jane Jacobs’s legacy and how today’s urban planners continue to misinterpret her work.
Sadly, many in the Smart Growth and New Urbanism movements cite Jacobs as the inspiration for their efforts to combat so-called ‘urban sprawl’ and make over suburbia with dense, walkable downtowns, mixed-use development, and varied building styles. While Jacobs identified these as organic elements of successful cities, planners have eagerly tried to impose them on cities in formulaic fashion, regardless of their contextual appropriateness and compatibility with the underlying economic order. In short, they’ve taken Jacobs’s observations of what makes cities work and tried to formalize them into an authoritarian recipe for policy intervention. As Jacobs opined in a 2001 Reason magazine interview, “the New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop. . . . And yet, from what I’ve seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don’t connect.” Jacobs’s ideas came from the heart. Her foray into urban theory was partly inspired by the failed urban renewal efforts of the post-World War II era that displaced tens of thousands of poor and minority residents and resulted in the isolation or destruction of previously vibrant neighborhoods in New York, Chicago, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.