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The Legacy of Jane Jacobs

So much has been said already about Jane Jacobs in the short time since her death -- or will be said in the next few days -- that I'm wary of simply adding to the stack of encomiums.

And yet one ought to say something about a woman who essentially demolished and then recreated the entire edifice of urban planning -- all thanks to a single book, written without the benefit of any professional credentials at all. The face of urban America began to change in 1961, when Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It began to move in her direction, and it has been moving that way ever since. We don't have the pedestrian-friendly cities that Jacobs really wanted -- urban America is far more dependent on the automobile than she was ever willing to accept --  but all you have to do is look around to see that, more and more, city dwellers are living in, or moving to, a world Jane Jacobs created.

All the urban freeways that haven't been built in the last 30 years -- all the communities that have been saved because eight-lane roads didn't drive a gash right through them -- those are monuments to Jane Jacobs. The residential boom that is transforming downtowns from Vancouver to Philadelphia, retrofitting old office towers as loft apartments: those are things Jane Jacobs was talking about 40 years ago.

The sidewalk cafes in every city that didn't exist in 1970 and are now so plentiful -- maybe they would have sprouted up with or without her, but she provided the ideas and the rhetoric that suddenly made them seem feasible. The value of mixed-use zoning, and the desirability of people of all ages, classes, occupations and interests living in close proximity to each other, creating genuine urban communities, those too are testaments to Jacobs' vision, prescience, and persistence.

I don't know what most cities would look like today if Jane Jacobs hadn't fought her battles and written her book, but I'm pretty sure what lower Manhattan would look like. It would be a freeway corridor with its historic neigborhoods bulldozed out of existence. If Jane Jacobs had not stopped Robert Moses from building the Lower Manhattan expressway in the early 1960s, there would be no Greenwich Village, no Soho, no Tribeca.

If she had accomplished nothing else in her long life, saving a large portion of America's biggest city would have been triumph enough. In fact, she accomplished so much more that in the end, there is really only one appropriate feeling for any lover of cities to have about her: simple gratitude.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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