This article was originally published in the Literary Review of Canada as "Tunnel Vision: Why our cities need less Jane Jacobs." It has been partially re-published with permission.
My introduction to Jane Jacobs was completely ordinary. Like many, many architecture students since its publication in 1962, I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities for an introductory course in urbanism. Jacobs was a joy to read, whip-crack smart and caustically funny, and she wrote in impeccable, old-school sentences that convinced you with their unimpeded flow. She explained her ideas in utterly clear and simple language. Planners are “pavement pounding” or “Olympian.” There are “foot people and car people.”
Why were we reading her? I expect it was to encourage us to look harder at the city, and to imbibe some of her spirited advocacy for experience over expertise. It was a captivating message and delivered at the right time. Today it seems as though everybody interested in cities has read at least part of Death and Life and found personal affirmation in it. Michael Kimmelman wrote, “It said what I knew instinctively to be true.” For David Crombie, “she made it clear that the ideas that mattered were the ones which we understood intimately.”
This quality was important, and one of the reasons that Jacobs endures in our culture is the facility with which we can identify with her. She is one of “us,” whoever that is—not an expert, more like an aunt than a professor. Her speciality was the induction of rules from patterns discovered by individual observation, like a 19th-century gentleman scientist. Her work gave seriousness to reactions that might otherwise be dismissed as taste, ignorance or prejudice.