polis: a collective blog about cities worldwide

Having a Jane Jacobs Moment: TXT-Urbia

by Hector Fernando Burga

Since her death in 2006, Jane Jacobs has been having a resurgence (or maybe she never really went away). New publications and debates underline the value of her work. Given the attention is it fair to ask: How do we read Jane Jacobs today?

Her most famous publication The Death and Life of Great American Cities (D&L) is a canonical text in urban studies. Part metropolitan bible, part urban-fix cookbook, part manifesto against modernist planning this text circulates freely among politicians, designers, activists and ordinary lovers of cities proclaiming neighborhood life, everyday observations and human scale as essential components of good urbanism.

But D&L provides multiple interpretations and leaves us pondering questions: Should the urban life of Greenwich village become an urban paradigm to emulate? Can "Eyes on the Street" be deployed as a design formula for community? Is Jane's critique of planning equally driven by environmental determinist ideas? Was Jane Jacobs ultimately a writer who seduced us all? An activist with an ethnographer's bent? Perhaps a feminist who stood firm before a legacy of male urbanists? What would Jane Jacobs have said about the foreclosure crisis? mega-cities? the gentrification of Times Square.

Inspired by Polis's collaborative format and with many of the above interrogations in mind, my "Jane Jacobs moment" led me to participate in an open online reading of D&L called TXT-Urbia. As we face challenges in cities in the US and beyond the re-reading of classic urban texts becomes necessary if not essential. The question of how we read Jane Jacobs today extends to other important publications. Their interpretation can be framed with new lenses and spaces of collaboration which next to academic production, political rhetoric and technocratic discourse, add new life and contingency to the voices of exemplary authors.

Credits: Video of Jane Jacobs in New York from the Municipal Art Society of New York.