Jane Jacobs Laid the Groundwork for Modern Urban Planning

Have you ever held the belief that certain individuals who, based on what they have brought to a field, should be considered as vital to anyone’s set of influences like Charles Darwin is to any evolutionary biologist? When it comes to urban planning, Jane Jacobs was one of these individuals.

Jane Jacobs, through her seminal writing, helped lay the groundwork for modern urban planning concepts, all without a professional background in the subject.

Jane Jacobs was not a professional urban planner. She was not a scientist specializing in the field of sustainability. She was a normal, everyday citizen who managed to, despite her background, create and contribute to schools of thought that became a watershed in the planning field.

New Urbanism owes much to her, and many concepts of urban planning that exist today were influenced by her way of thinking. Most importantly, she has proven that you don’t have to be a person of “prestige” to make a positive impact in a field.

Who is Jane Jacobs?

Jane Jacobs, born in 1916 in a coal-mining town, did not come from a background in planning. Over the years, however, she was fortunate to grow up in diverse neighborhoods that helped her build up an appreciation of the power of community, connection, and livability.

As she became a professional writer within the field of architecture and related fields, she began to become far more interested in cities at large and how they were entities of connection. Ultimately, her writing culminated in her book, “The Life and Death of Great American Cities,” one of the most important writings in the field of urban planning.

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  The Life and Death of Great American Cities.  Image via Amazon.com.

Urban Planning Concepts

Jane Jacobs is widely considered to be one of the most important writers in planning history, despite not having a background in urban planning. Her writing helped bring to light how city planning, at the time, was nowhere near perfect and needed to be changed. Her clashing with the status quo, including with the methods of planning giant Robert Moses, helped usher in alternative planning methods.

Thanks to her, the field is now far more diverse, as many planners have come to realize just how many different methods of urban planning can exist today.  Most importantly, however, she helped pioneer many planning ideas today, many of which often overlap with sustainability.

Ultimately, she has proven that anyone can make a difference in urban planning. It was said before, but it was her work that ended up redefining the purpose of urban planning and altering planning approaches forever.

The amazing thing about this feat is the fact that she was, at the core, an ordinary person, no different from anybody else in the world. Except she knew that these “ordinary people” may often hold insight that can change a city for the better. Her accomplishments ultimately mean a lot to anyone who is interested in urban planning.

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Bob Dylan In Greenwich Village, Jane Jacobs’ home neighborhood.  Image via telegraph.co.uk.

The Sustainable Connection

While Jane Jacobs’ impact is far more felt in the planning field, there is no doubt that, at the end of the day, Jane Jacobs and all she represents is a good influence for practitioners in the field of sustainability, both professional and amateur. Mixed-use design, an emphasis on community, and the modern, walkable city were all heavily influenced by her.

In order for sustainable concepts such as mixed-use, walkability, and the application of sustainable aesthetics (vegetation, energy saving aesthetics, and so forth) to be successful, urban planning needs to create opportunities so that these concepts can be applied.

Finally, her success and influence in the field of urban planning has proven that, as stated before, the ordinary person can make a difference in a field. The next great figure in sustainability may come from anywhere.

Most importantly, however, the ordinary person does not have to make a big difference, but only a small one, to help build a sustainable planet. Simply put, the insights of everyone, no matter what their background is, can be utilized to help build a sustainable future.

Feature image: Jane Jacobs at Washington Square Park. Image via Tabletmag.

About The Author

Alex Ageno earned his degree in Urban Planning in 2013 from Arizona State University. Alex’s interests in Urban Planning include Urban Design, Sustainability, Form Based Codes, Zoning, and Environmental Planning. He resides in Arizona.