Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
"Ordinary people are capable of wonderful things without even knowing they’re doing wonderful things."
Wednesday would be the 100th birthday of Jane Jacobs, the legendary author, theorist, and activist who left a most enduring mark on the form and philosophy of cities. Pushing back against the fortress-like high-rises and new urban highways of the 1960s, Jacobs observed and articulated the qualities of truly thriving cities: They are built with communities, not single-use sectors, in mind. They allow organic interactions and support creative exchange. Their streets and architecture are oriented to the human scale.
Though she isn’t around to participate (Jacobs died in 2006), countless lectures, walking tours, and publications are commemorating her centenary. There’s a documentary and an opera in production. There’s no shortage of essays meditating on her legacy. With all the analysis in the air, it’s worth revisiting Jacobs’ own words. A slim new book serves this purpose: Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview & Other Conversations (Melville House, 2016) assembles four wide-ranging dialogues between Jacobs, journalists, and other thinkers from 1962 to 2005. We’ve selected some of the most striking insights and advisories from the essential urban visionary.
On banning cars from cities
I think people are suspicious of schemes that offer them nothing in return. We should get rid of automobiles, but in a positive way. What we need is more things that conflict with their needs—wider sidewalks, more space for trees, even double lines of trees on some sidewalks, dead ends not for foot traffic but for automobiles, more frequent places for people to cross streets, more traffic lights—they’re an abomination to automobiles, but a boon to pedestrians. And then we should have more convenient public transportation.
We constantly sacrifice all kinds of amenities for automobiles. I think we can wear down their number by sacrificing the roadbed to some of our other needs instead. It’s a switch in values.
On the poorly chosen metaphors of urban planning
City planners are always saying you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. But they are talking about people, not eggs! If planning helps people, they ought to be better off as a result, not worse off.
If I were running a school, I’d have one standing assignment that would begin in the first grade and go on all through school, every week: that each child should bring in something said by an authority—it could be by the teacher or something they see in print, but something that they don’t agree with—and refute it.
On finding a home in New York City
One day I found myself in a neighborhood I just liked so much. It was one of those times I had put a nickel in and just invested something. And where did I get out? I just liked the sound of the name: Christopher Street. So I got out at Christopher Street, and I was enchanted with this neighborhood, and walked around it all afternoon and then I rushed back to Brooklyn. And I said [to her sister], “Betty, I found out where we have to live.” And she said, “Where is it?” And I said, “I don’t know, but you get in the subway and you get out at a place called Christopher Street.” So we went to look for a place where you got out of the subway at Christopher Street.
On the suspect motives of sleek design
I used to like to go to the railroad station in Scranton [where Jacobs grew up] and watch the locomotives. I got a big bang out of seeing the locomotives and those pistons that moved their wheels. And that interested me: how they were moved by those things and then the connection of that with the steam inside, and so on. In the meantime, along had come these locomotives that had skirts on them, and you couldn’t see how the wheels moved, and that disturbed me. And it was supposed to be for reasons of aerodynamics, but that didn’t make sense. And I began to notice how everything was being covered up, and I thought that was kind of sick.
On attending a city hearing about the Lower Manhattan Expressway, the only time she saw Robert Moses in person
He stood up there gripping the railing, and he was furious at the effrontery of this, because he could already see that his plan was in danger. Because he was saying, “There is nobody against this—nobody, nobody, nobody, but a bunch of, a bunch of mothers!” And then he stomped out.
On the real forces shaping the future of cities
People who try to predict the future by extrapolating in a line of more of what exists—they are always wrong. It is not going to go the same… [Instead,] here comes a generation or two that just can’t stand what the previous generations did. And for whatever reasons, they want to expunge it. And they are absolutely ruthless with the remnants of it.
But I don’t think of it as an economic or political trainwreck. I think of it as one of those great generational upheavals that’s coming. And I think that part of the growing popularity around New Urbanism is not simply because it is so rational, and not simply because people care so much about community (or even understand it), or the relation of sprawl to the ruination of the natural world. They just don’t like what is around. And they will be ruthless with it.
I would like it to be understood, and increasingly understood as time passes, that all our human economic achievements have been done by ordinary people, not by exceptionally educated people, or by elites or by supernatural forces, for heaven’s sake. Yet without understanding this, people are all too willing to fall for the idea that they can’t do this, they themselves, or anybody they know, because they’re too ordinary.
Ordinary people are capable of wonderful economic things without even knowing they’re doing wonderful things. You know, the next thing is not planned. It just seems to happen. It is very seldom planned.