Today I’d like to discuss a remarkable woman who railed against suburbia, protected historic buildings, and championed urban spaces even when she faced opposition. Without Jane Jacobs, the landscapes of both Toronto and New York City would likely be drastically different.
Jacobs was born in Scranton, PA in 1916, and moved to New York in the depths of the depression. She worked as a secretary, stenographer, and eventually, as a freelance reporter. In 1947, she met her husband, an architect. And unlike many post-war families, they chose to stay in Greenwich Village to raise their children, rather than moving out to suburbia. This allowed Jacobs to continue with her writing and for her family to grow in a neighbourhood where community was strong.
In 1952, Jacobs won a position as assistant editor at Architectural Forum magazine. Although she was relatively uneducated (completing half a general studies degree from Columbia University) and definitely not an architect, Jacobs brought blueprints home from work each night to study so she could learn about buildings in order to write about them. It was at Architectural Forum that Jacobs really developed her ideas about cities and began her advocacy.
One galvanising experience for Jacobs was when she visited Philadelphia with city planner Edmund Bacon to write a story for the periodical on “urban renewal projects,” high rise affordable housing for low income families. Jacobs noted the difference within a city block. On one street, still filled with low rises, families walked together and children played, while one block over a strip of high rise apartments had been built, and all Jacobs saw was a lone child. In her biographies, this is described as a life-changing moment for Jacobs; she came to the conclusion that cities must facilitate pedestrian traffic for their inhabitants.
As a result of this experience, Jacobs began a life-long fight against urban renewal projects, both in the written word in Architectural Forum magazine, and through various community advocacy initiatives. Jacobs canvassed communities affected by urban renewal projects and got the opinion of residents, she held and marched in rallies, and was arrested and jailed at various times. As a result of her efforts, she was instrumental in cancelling the raising of Greenwich Village, and the building of the lower Manhattan Expressway. She documented this fight against the autocratic New York City planner Robert Moses in her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Her book stands alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Stokely Carmichael’s Black Power as a work which radically changed society during the 1960s.
In 1968, Jacobs and her family immigrated to Canada, settling in Toronto. Again, Jacobs immersed herself in community life, opposing the construction of the Spadina Expressway (a freeway which would have cut the very core of downtown in half from north to south). She aided in the planning for the St. Lawrence neighbourhood, an area still known for its vibrancy and walkability. She left an indelible impression on Toronto as well as New York City.
Jane’s Walk is an annual event held in cities around the world on the first weekend of every May in memory of Jacobs and in celebration of her birthday. It is a series of free guided walks led by volunteers from the community meant to showcase different parts of cities. Anyone can plan and lead a Jane’s Walk, so this year I helped a friend plan and lead a walk in Toronto called Cityscape/Soundscape: Exploring Our Sonic Environment. I research a Canadian soundscape theorist, R. Murray Schafer, who suggests that the sounds of a particular location are as significant as its landmarks. We applied his theory to a walk in the city, leading our blindfolded walk attendees through different parts of Toronto, allowing them to experience the city’s sounds. While our walk was about sound, Jane’s Walks can be about anything: some focus on architecture and others on cultural areas of the city. They also can be lead by anyone; any members of the community who are passionate about where they live; there was even a grade four class who lead a walk this year. Walk attendees are from all “walks” (haha) of life and so it’s a great opportunity to share a special thing you love about your home-city with other people.
Jacobs was an amazing lady, and Jane’s Walk gives us all a really neat way to remember her legacy.