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The car and the city - Jane Jacobs dies

By: staff

Date: Thursday, 11. May 2006

The Grande Dame of life in the city, Jane Jacobs, died in Toronto yesterday at age 89.

Back in the late 1950s and 1960s, when the movement to build a national network of superhighways in the United States was gathering steam under the aegis of President Eisenhower, Jane Jacobs was shaping her ideas of ideal city life.

Back then there were grand plans for 'urban renewal': new suburbs with easy access by car, parks, open spaces, housing projects, high rises, superblocks, commercial areas, and, of course, sweeping highways that would cut through all the congestion, letting the automobile do its work of mobilization.

And for those who wanted it (which seemed to be most), the new highways would transport the downtown white-collar workers quickly to their rapidly proliferating little bits of suburban bliss - the detached home, half way between city and country.

However, the new mobility offered by automobile and highway was wreaking havoc on urban life.

During the '60s, many formerly-great north American cities became 'donuts.' After work, the white-collar workers hopped in their automobiles and fled the downtown citadels of industry and commerce to return to the 'American dream' suburbs which soon became the focus of dramas and comedies about rebellion against the dreariness and boredom often associated with them.

Empty downtown cores became desolate places until business life resumed the following morning. Meanwhile, the areas surrounding the commercial cores were left to those who couldn't afford to leave.

The result was dereliction and decay. In Washington, the capital city of the wealthiest nation in the world, one only had to walk a few hundred meters from the White House and the Congressional buildings to descend into this depressing no-man's land of broken down buildings and poverty stricken streets.

Jacobs fought the planning movements that were accelerating this process at the expense of downtown neighborhoods. Her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American cities, is regarded by many as the most influential book written about urban planning in the 20th century. In this work, she tried to set out the ingredients and the formula for the lively kinds of neighborhoods she loved - complicated, somewhat messy, densely populated communities where people lived, worked, interacted and watched out for each other.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, Ms Jacobs moved to New York in 1934 where she became a freelance writer. Married to an architect, she took a keen interest in urban affairs and at one time wrote columns on downtown living for Fortune Magazine.

She was a well-known activist in New York, spending more than a decade of her life fighting plans to run expressways into the heart of Manhattan at the expense of neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Soho and Greenwich Village.

In 1968, Jacobs and her husband moved to Toronto, Canada. They were determined that their two sons would not be drafted to fight in Vietnam. Jacobs quickly became an activist in Toronto as well, one of her most notable campaigns being against the proposed Spadina expressway, which would have cut through the heart of downtown Toronto.

It may be no coincidence that Toronto, her chosen home, became one of the liveliest cities in North America with many thriving downtown neighborhoods and the kind of urban lifestyle Jacobs had advocated since the 1960s.

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The suburbs is a great place to raise children as long as you have a car and gas is cheap and you can drive everywhere. However, it's not healthy because people don't walk anywhere and add to the nation's obesity problem. Also, the suburbs are hell for teenagers. They get bored, have to be driven everywhere, and hang out in the wrong places.

I live in the city and it's great for kids if you live in a nice neighborhood of the kind Jane Jacobs promoted. People get to know one another. You can walk to the store, the grocery shop, restaurants.


I don't care how much traffic i have to deal with on my commute, it's worth having a real home with a yard and pleasant neighbors. The city is no place to raise children.

Suburban slicke,

I am in favor of good public transportation. However, I regret to say that's just becuase I want less cars interfering with my morning and evening commute.

Sai Yu,

I think a lot of big cities in South East Asia like Tokyo, Seoul, HongKong, Shanghai, Manila, Mumbai, etc. are fascinating and worth visiting if you love city life.

Brent Kreud,

Everyone who lives in a city should read "The Death and Life of Great American cities."

The only city I know that I would qualify as great is Miami. And it's not just the beach. It's got inner city life

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