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Jane Jacobs: Celebrating the City Street

by Christopher Chantrill
April 27, 2006 at 11:42 am

JANE JACOBS was a writer celebrated both by liberals and conservatives. She died April 25 in Toronto, aged 89. In her celebrated Death and Life of Great American Cities she punctured the confident movement of urban renewal that was bulldozing entire urban neighborhoods to cure “urban blight.” Liberals liked her because she bashed the rich. Conservatives liked her because she championed the old and the traditional.

She also belonged to that extraordinary time around 1960 when a clutch of major non-fiction books were published to universal reception: “Death and Life of American Cities,” “Silent Spring,” “The Other America,” “The Feminine Mystique,” “Growing Up Absurd,” “The Affluent Society,” and “Unsafe at Any Speed.”

In the New York Times Douglas Martin speaks of her four recommendations for city environment:

"Death and Life" made four basic recommendations for creating municipal diversity: 1. A street or district must serve several primary functions. 2. Blocks must be short. 3. Buildings must vary in age, condition and use. 4. Population must be dense.

In NRO conservative G. Tracy Mehan claims Jacobs for conservatives.

Flourishing city diversity, of the kind that is catalyzed by the combination of mixed primary uses, frequent streets, mixture of building ages and overheads, and dense concentration of users, does not carry with it the disadvantages of diversity conventionally assumed by planning pseudoscience.

Mehan claims Jacobs as a Burkean. But you could also categorize her as a rebellious libertarian.

"City air still makes free the runaways from company towns, from plantations, from factory-farms, from subsistence farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one-class suburbs," wrote Jacobs.

We can hardly say that she succeeded in stopping the elite passion for remaking cities in its own highly educated and highly evolved image. “Urban Renewal” was replaced by “New Urbanism” and now “Smart Growth.” The theme is constant—bulldozing people around to suit the aesthetic preferences of the educated elite.

But there is a curious contradiction in Jacobs’ womanly celebration of the vibrant city. The single-purpose suburb, against which she rails, was created by women. They wanted to get away from the danger and the bustle of the city so they could raise their families in peace and quiet.

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Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.  His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.

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Ludwig von Mises, Human Action


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Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison


China and Christianity

At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing


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Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm


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©2007 Christopher Chantrill