FIFTY YEARS ago this month, Random House published “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.’’ The author was Jane Jacobs, a housewife from Scranton who had no formal training in urban planning, but had managed to get a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation and was encouraged to write a book that would change the world. And that it did. The book took on city governments, planners, the business establishment, modernist architecture, and the policy of urban renewal, charging that all were misguided, ravaging our cities with ill-conceived plans that sucked the life out of communities, while depriving residents of any say in their future.
For cities, it was the equivalent of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring,’’ the sounding of an alarm, and an audacious assault on the status quo. Jacobs battled the master builder Robert Moses and rallied New Yorkers to fight City Hall. Generations of progressive planners kept the book as a kind of Bible. The principles she outlined - human-scaled mixed-use neighborhoods, moderately dense with access to transit, with lots of activity for “eyes on the street’’ and the “sidewalk ballet,’’ typified by Greenwich Village, where she lived - are all uniformly embraced by planning professions today, and the movements of New Urbanism and smart growth. Jacobs, who died in 2006, left us the owner’s manual for the livable city. The public is now intimately involved in the planning and development process.