How Women Have Shaped the Profession as Well as Our Communities

Jane Jacobs (1916 – 2006)

Women in Planning Special Series

by Kristen Humphrey, MLA, Local Assistance and Training Planner

When I think of Jane Jacobs, a well-worn (if oft mis-applied) phrase comes to mind: “Well- behaved women seldom make history.” [1]

Jane Jacobs, Chairman of the Commitee to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference in January, 1961. Public domain.

Photo of book cover. Public domain.

Most of us in planning and related professions know Jacobs for her first and most cherished book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Random House, 1961) – to this day, almost universally required reading for planners early in their academic careers. Most of us were downright awe-struck by her descriptions of how cities work. Further, Jacobs’ analyses of what cities could be and how they should function if given the proper combination of understanding, funding, and deference, were a revelation. Her ideas were like the proverbial hot knife through butter. They were incisive yet commonsensical. Why hadn’t anyone thought of cities before in the ways she so deftly interpreted and explained them?

In addition to her prolific life as an author and critic of urban planning in mid-20th century America, Jacobs is remembered for being an activist, a defender of cities and parks and neighborhoods from the wanton destruction of slum-clearing urban renewal practices of the day. A female David in a male-dominated Goliath’s world. An agitator. A disruptor.

But if somehow you managed to miss that part of the story, of her story, I will recount a little of it here and will recommend some wonderful sources I have dipped into in preparation for kicking off our Women in Planning series.

The short version is Jacobs was a writer and editor, having worked her way up from stenographer, and later freelancer, for a variety of publications. She was not a planner. She was, however, a keen observer of people and urban life and an astute writer about both, even before her seminal book. What threw her into the limelight, however, was in the late 1950s, finding her own New York City neighborhood park, Washington Square, and again in the 1960s her neighborhood itself, Greenwich Village, in the cross hairs of no less than the father (or some would say godfather) of urban renewal: Robert Moses.

Moses was a planner. Not just any planner but the most powerful planner of the day who, after World War II, was convinced that the way to modernize cities was to wipe the slate clean and start over. Moses believed designing for the automobile was the way of the future and that poor neighborhoods (slums in the parlance of the day) stood in the way of human progress. At first blush, the idea of tackling urban poverty seems altruistic. However, his solution to poverty rapidly devolved from a noble philosophy into a practice of razing slums and replacing them with new Corbusier-inspired “super blocks” and high rise apartment buildings. [2]

Moses often spoke of impoverished and working class neighborhoods as cancerous, and like a cancer, they needed to be cut out. They, and the people living in them, were expendable to the process, removable and relocatable. He felt that the planners, who were educated and knew what was right, should not be questioned and the people who were otherwise in the way of this new, rationally planned order should be grateful. It is suggested that not only the rise of the automobile, but also the growth of air travel and the resulting disassociated view of cities, as seen from thousands of feet above, contributed to his views. Jacobs did not share his perspective. After all, hers was one formed entirely at street level.

When Moses sought to extend Fifth Avenue directly through Washington Square Park as part of overarching plans of the Mayor’s Committee on Slum Clearance to connect with the larger, and potentially far more damaging project, the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway, he suddenly met his match. Jacobs, not only a resident of the area, but already a developing critic of such urban renewal tactics, was not to be moved. She wrote about the issues, she strategized, she organized, and most importantly, she earned the disdain and raised the ire of Moses.  This arguably became his undoing.

Community celebration of last vehicle through Washington Square Park in 1958. Getty Images,

Many critics roundly attacked Jacobs and her ideas. Despite practicing as a journalist by that time for several professional publications including Architectural Forum, they characterized her as clueless, uneducated, and non-professional. Her ideas were dismissed as nothing more than the misguided sentiments of a mother and a housewife. Jacobs used that characterization in her favor and, quite famously, organized mothers to protest the plans to transect the park while pushing baby carriages and with older kids in tow. As a testament to its lasting symbolic significance, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel recounted a fictionalized version of this event in the wildly popular television series. The efforts of the community and Jacobs succeeded in halting the avenue’s extension, and they celebrated with what was dubbed a “ribbon tying” ceremony in the park.

The success of these efforts undeniably paved the way (pardon the awful pun!) for community-based activism across the U.S. Ordinary citizens fought and successfully stymied similar plans for urban highways, but not always before massive damage was done. In cases such as Baltimore’s own partially completed “highway to nowhere,” neighborhoods were decimated in southwest Baltimore and the urban freeway would have cut through large, forested Leakin Park, had community protests not stopped it ultimately in 1981.

Baltimore’s “highway to nowhere,” a never completed conection to Interstate Route 70 West, shown bisecting city neighborhoods. Source:


Perhaps helping to cement her ideas, not long after saving Washington Square Park, Death and Life was published. In it Jacobs contended that cities were complex systems; that they should be filled with people and density was good; that people and activity on streets provided not only a liveliness and vitality to a city but also provided safety and security through “eyes on the street” or “natural surveillance.” Bottomline, she argued, planning ought to be about people, not buildings. The book’s principle ideas may now seem like so much quaint, homespun, common sense, but when Jacobs first published them, they were in fact radical. And, most significantly, they undermined the tenets of mainstream urban planning ideals of the day.

Washington Square Park Today Source:

The irony that the work and ideas of a non-planner, albeit the quintessential citizen planner (an idea dating back to ancient Greece) and a woman, no less, was the work that up-ended the profession at the time, should be lost on no one. It is a testament to her work and understanding of her subjects, cities, that it endures. Respecting what exists and, through public participation, identifying what is needed to sustain and strengthen what exists, is now the expectation rather than the exception in planning. Jacobs’ work remains fundamental to both the teaching and the day-to-day practice of the profession.

And Moses? He is remembered mainly by the failures of his great experiments, as today, everywhere, superhighways bisecting cities and snaking along waterways are being replaced with parks and blocks permitting pedestrian-only traffic. Smarter cities are designing less for cars and more for multi-modal public transit. He is also remembered for his hubris, arrogant “father knows best” methods of planning and gross misinterpretation of Corbusier’s designs. [2]

Thankfully most of the dehumanizing high rise apartments or “vertical slums,” as they became known, are becoming a distant memory, collapsing most famously with the implosion of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis in 1974. Countless others followed, including the Murphy Homes and Hollander Ridge complexes in West Baltimore (which tragically hung on as late as the early 2000s). Planning departments across the country still work to mend the fabric of cities, replacing the ill-conceived monoliths with more human-scale, neighborhood-centric, mixed use communities (See remarkable footage of the demolition of Murphy Homes and Hollander Ridge on YouTube.)

Source: USGS aerial photo on

There is so much more to Jacobs’ story, not the least of which that her activism and opposition to proposed highways seemed somehow to follow her wherever she went, even after her move to Toronto. Most significantly, she went on to write a number of other books, some of which she felt more significantly contributed to the future of cities, in particular to the field of urban economics. I recommend the following selection. First and foremost, anything by Jacobs herself – a re-reading of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is always a prodigious use of one’s time – but also several notable biographies including:

  • Eyes on the Street: The life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel (Vintage, 2016)
  • Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City by Anthony Flint (Random House, 2009)
  • Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations (The Last Interview Series) by Jane Jacobs (Melville House 2016)
  • Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L. Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016)
  • For teens/tweensGenius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of the Death and Life of Great American Cities by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunch (David R. Godine, 2009)
  • And for younger children: Walking in the City with Jane: A Story of Jane Jacobs by Susan Hughes, illustrated by Valerie Biovin (Kids Can Press, 2018).

On a lighter note, Regional Planner for Central Maryland, Victoria Olivier, whom we highlighted in our April, 2019 Planning Practice Monthly edition, has said that, like most of us, signs of cabin fever have started to set in at the Olivier home. “We’ve recently resorted to dressing up our young daughter as famous planners for our own amusement, starting with Jane Jacobs.”

Most of these works are quite readable, but if you are inclined to binge-watching films and series right now during these stay-at-home days of COVID-19, you may prefer a marvelous documentary called Citizen Jane, Battle for the City released in 2017 (available on Netflix) or New York, A Documentary Film, Episode 7: The City and The World (1945-2003) (available on YouTube).

[1] Words of Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.

[2] The Power Broker, Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (Vintage, 1975), Pulitzer Prize winning work by Robert A. Caro, is the quintessential work on Moses for those wanting to learn more.

2 thoughts on “How Women Have Shaped the Profession as Well as Our Communities

  1. Excellent piece, Kristen! Jacobs legacy as a hero to citizen planners remains strong to this day. She moved into the same Toronto neighbourhood our family moved out of in the ’60s. No fan of conventional planning, she reprised her role as a strong voice in stopping the Spadina Expressway, which would have torn a destructive path through the heart of the west end of the city.

  2. One source I read spoke about how Jacobs, in many ways, was a reluctant activist in that she was primarily a writer who found herself in that role out of necessity, and was more than happy to get back to her job of writing about cities (over defending them) when the immediate crises were over. It is ironic that proposed highways seemed to crop up in her neighborhoods of choice in both countries!

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