Walks and Walkability: The Life and Legacy of Jane Jacobs

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.

A shot of an urban city from above.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.

Further Reading:

Jane Jacobs: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Alice Sparberg Alexiou: Jane Jacobs Urban Visionary

By wannabemusicologist

Wannabemusicologist muses about music as her day job. She also loves martial arts, playing the flute, cycling, and getting her knit on.

10 replies on “Walks and Walkability: The Life and Legacy of Jane Jacobs”

My grandfather was actually good friends with Jane Jacobs– they worked together in the West Village Committee. My grandfather was very invested in keeping Greenwich Village in its historical condition, up until the day he died. When we were looking through his old phone book to contact people after he passed, I saw her name and phone number in there. Apparently they shared a backyard when my mom was a kid.

Ah, this is so familiar! I live in a city rabidly defended from development by a mixture of an old institution able and willing to buy/block buildings and a naturally building-conservative populace (and great transport links, so new designer villages have always been de rigeur). A couple of developments have sprung up recently that facilitate foot traffic in precisely the way the phrase conjures – squares, deliberate “promenades”, green spaces and variation in layout and design. Though I’m not sure how much she directly influenced city planning here in the UK, it’s nice to see that movement actively reflected.


I went on one of the Jane’s Walks in Vancouver (Canada), and it was excellent. He talked about the development of a small corner of my neighbourhood. The reason that parts of East Van are a hodge podge of house styles is that it was a real-mixed class neighbourhood (due to the street cars), and so individual houses mostly were built, instead of developers buying two or three blocks at a time and then building a row of identical houses. Of course all the history (taken from insurance and ownership records) were about the men who owned the houses and worked at the docks or the mills or the railway station, or…. No history of the women. Still, so interesting!

Oh wow, that sounds like such an interesting walk. My parents lived in East Van when they were first married. I really wanted to go on more than just the one I helped host. There were a few really cool ones on “the lost rivers of Toronto” which talked about rivers and creeks in the city buried by roads.

I would love to learn more about her, generally. Apparently her idea of “walkability” is something that some urban planners take into account so it is more than possible that it would be applied to Seattle too.  To me it’s so awesome that she, a married woman with no degree, was able to become a reporter at a fairly influential magazine in the 1950s/60s when those sorts of things just weren’t done. And then, she took on fairly high-powered government officials to protect her and others’ homes.

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