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.
Yet her legacy is decidedly mixed. She defies being any one group’s champion. She was, fundamentally, anti-planning. She was essentially libertarian and against the use of eminent domain. Her book took on the establishment, asserting that entrenched government planners who thought they knew best needed to be reined in - not unlike the guiding spirit of the Tea Party.
She never really solved the riddle of gentrification, and access to housing by people of color, though she tried with projects like the West Village Houses, which she saw as a “windbreak’’ against real estate speculation - housing that remains as a modicum of affordability in her old neighborhood, now celebrity-studded and rarefied.
And her legitimate call for more citizen involvement has led to a kind of paralysis in many cities. Activists who claim the mantle of Jacobs are often simply saying “not in my backyard.’’ In Brooklyn, several women donned blond wigs and black-rimmed glasses - the author’s signature look - channeling Jacobs to protest rezoning and infill redevelopment plans. Jacobs sought to preserve historical gems but never intended for cities to be frozen in amber. She recognized they needed to evolve, to be places of innovation and change. But many continue to fight battles against environmentally beneficial and well-designed projects as if it were still 1961.
Jacobs had an innate sense of how cities were not only the grandest form of civilization, but the greenest. They need infrastructure to propel them into the 21st century, but even this is being thwarted. In Palo Alto, residents are fighting high-speed rail as if it were the Lower Manhattan Expressway.
It could be that Jacobs’s legacy could use a bit of her nemesis: Moses. Jacobs was the ultimate foil for Moses, derailing his plans when governors, mayors, and even presidents failed to do so. But Moses had a vision for the metropolis and for regional planning. He knew how to navigate the bureaucracy, get things done, and pay for them. Unthinkable at the time of publication, “Death and Life’’ today might best benefit cities by blending the two.
Anthony Flint is the author of “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,’’ and a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in Cambridge.