Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The Death and Life of a Great Urban Thinker

Some sad news today, Jane Jacobs died. (As reported in the Globe and Mail, and -- surprisingly -- Wikipedia itself. How spooky is it that an encyclopedia updates its entry on the day you die? Ah well, vive l'internet!)

Jane Jacobs was a major, intractable critic of modern urban planning. Her best known book was The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Here's what Wikipedia says about it:

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is her single most influential book, and quite possibly the most influential American book on urban planning. Widely read by both planning professionals and the general public, the book is a strong critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s which, she claimed, destroyed communities and created isolated, unnatural urban spaces. Jacobs advocated dense, mixed-use neighborhoods and frequently cited New York City's Greenwich Village as an example of a vibrant urban community.
Above and beyond the practical lessons in city design and planning that "Death and The Life" offers, the theoretical underpinnings of the work profoundly challenge the
entire modern mindset. Jane Jacob rigorously adheres to inductive, nearly scientific, reasoning. Moreover, she is open to anecdotal evidence coming to bear on what has been induced from harder data. The paradigm that she embodies and represents is one of common sense, practical realism, and above all induction from fact. This paradigm is new, refreshing and empowering.

(In fact, Jacobs is nothing if not Aristotelian in her approach; very interesting from this perspective, I think.)

It is a book that anyone who loves cities and cares about what happens to them should read; it is also a book for anyone who loves people or society and cares what happens to them, which after all is the same thing. It has been immensely influential, a 'canonical classic' if every there were one, for New Urbanism.

(I have just learned that the UK (rough) equivalent to New Urbanism is Urban Renaissance.)

(I first read about Jacobs' passing on The Gutter, which provides ill-mannered commentary on architecture and architects. I read it every day.)

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