Remembering and understanding Jane Jacobs, beyond left and right

Remembering and understanding jane jacobs, beyond left and right
Jane Jacobs is pictured in this 2004 file photo / © Fred Lum

Everyone has their own Jane Jacobs. The famous writer would have been 100 this year, and people around the world have been remembering the way her steely intelligence transformed their lives. The book that made her name, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, remains one of the 20th century’s most beloved and influential takes on urban life, a book that many credit with forever altering how they see the city. Then, for four decades after that, in five more books and a host of essays and speeches, many of which we have collected in our new book Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, she upended our understanding of not just cities, but economies, ethics and politics. In scrambling expectations, she became one of those rare public intellectuals who finds readers and acolytes everywhere, capturing imaginations at both ends of the political spectrum, inspiring community organizers and libertarians alike.

On both the left and right, Ms. Jacobs is often wheeled out to support predigested political positions. But those who remember her as an American Vietnam War protester who escaped to Canada, for instance, or as a long-time ally of Toronto’s progressive Reform City Council in the 1970s to the 2000s, may be surprised by her advocacy for privatization or recent acclaim for her as a “free-market fundamentalist in city building.” On the page, too, two tendencies compete. Depending on your political persuasion, Death and Life can be read as either an insurgent dismantling of mainstream assumptions similar to other touchstones of the 1960s such as The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan or Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, or alternatively as a dry run for the libertarian attacks on heavy-handed government planning, subsidy and regulation that would come into vogue in later decades.

Both of these threads run through Death and Life and her later work, but hewing too closely to either version of Ms. Jacobs tends to cloud our understanding of her work. Ms. Jacobs herself shied away from partisan commitment of all stripes, and she took pleasure in frustrating all ideologues in equal measure. One of the great lessons of her life’s work is that the combined power of close observation and reasoning from the bottom up can help us put good ideas from both ends of the conventional political spectrum to work in everyday life. By following this inductive method, Ms. Jacobs gave us a novel political philosophy that combines a progressive vision of grassroots democracy with a belief in the liberating potential of broadly shared economic development. […]