Jane Jacobs is celebrated for many things: her game-changing 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities; her shaking up of urban-development thinking and ideas about the functioning of city economies; her activism in opposition to urban highways and large-scale clearance of buildings; her advocacy of community-based plans rooted in local wisdom; her coining of such terms as “eyes on the street,” “human capital,” and “sidewalk ballet.”
But rarely is she recognized as a true original, ahead of her time, as she should be. As we mark the centennial of her birth this month, it is difficult to remember that as recently as the 1980s, America and much of the world was still wedded to the post-World War II paradigm of urban renewal, with highways slicing through the city. There was a fierce conviction that cities were anachronistic, a holdover from the “romanticized” past, places that had to be reshaped in a “modern” way. The future was in the suburbs, with spacious lawns and entrances through the garage instead of the front door, discouraging neighborly connections.