Remembering Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

When Jane Jacobs died last spring, many urbanists were surprised by the breadth and depth of the media coverage that followed. Her work was subjected to the kind of widespread attention it hadn’t received in decades; many people were compelled to read or re-read her classics, especially The Death and Life of Great American Cities. But what now? As Lisa Rochon wrote in Tuesday’s Globe and Mail, little has been done in Canada — her home for nearly four decades — to ensure that her ideas will continue to make a difference in the years to come. Unlike some other architecture critics (or should I say starchitecture groupies), Rochon has always recognized the power of Jacobs’ work. It comes as no surprise, then, that she has compiled a pretty solid list of ways in which Jacobs could be memorialized.


In her piece “Time to think big about Jane,” Rochon writes:

Best not to contemplate naming a building after Jacobs. Her name could be used to raise the profile of a slightly wonky institution or soften the blow of an ordinary design. “She felt that getting things named after you was a double-edged sword,” her son, Jim Jacobs, says from his home in Toronto. “Better to have your name on a book and if it was no good, then that was your own fault.”

Given Jacobs’s work to stop the Spadina Expressway, some have considered naming the new Lake Shore Boulevard after Jacobs if, in fact, the Gardiner Expressway comes down. “That would be terrible,” Jim Jacobs protests. “Jane thought that the Gardiner should not be replaced with any kind of big boulevard when it came down. She had observed that when you put up a new highway, it takes months to fill up with traffic. If you did the process in reverse, and shut down each lane one by one, the traffic would go elsewhere.”

To be sure, a physical memorial — after a war, a natural disaster or the death of a great cultural hero such as Glenn Gould — helps people remember. The problem is that it limits Jane to one neighbourhood, whereas her ideas spread from her stoop in the Annex to the world. I prefer the idea of a travelling marketplace, or naming an annual Jane Jacobs Day in which children of all ages are taught some of the fundamentals of her thinking.

Rather than a bench or a fountain or a park named in her honour, I would hope that the city might sit down with urban visionaries and Jacobs’s family and friends to hammer out a way to keep her ideas alive. Though a Jane Jacobs annual prize for individuals was started in 1997, a new award could be inaugurated for specific grassroots projects from anywhere across the country or, indeed, the world. Or there could be a memorial fund to help one small slice of the urban fringe find a sense of community. Or maybe funds in the name of Jane Jacobs could be donated by the city to start building bread-baking ovens in many parks, just as Jutta Mason, a Jane Jacobs Prize past recipient, managed remarkably for Dufferin Grove Park.

What matters is an initiative that helps us to carry on learning from Jacobs — to allow us to plunge back into her texts. A centre dedicated to her ideas and community activism could do that. A centre for urban ecology is an idea being seriously floated by her long-time friends and colleagues Margie Zeidler and Mary Rowe. Watch for it: The centre could be a fitting and natural extension of Jacobs’s work.

What can I say? She’s right.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Thursday October 19 2006at 01:10 am , filed under Society and Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

6 Responses to “Remembering Jane Jacobs”

  • RS says:

    No doubt…if they are going to rename du Parc as “Robert Bourassa” then well, yeah! She at least needs a little neighborhood park or something!

    Just kidding. Like all great authors, she will be remembered regardless. I’ve only gotten to know her work since her death but it strikes me that the material side of remembering her is really antithetical…

  • Christopher DeWolf says:

    Definitely. I think that was Rochon’s point, too. It would be great if, in honour of Jacobs, some of her more elementary ideas about cities could be introduced in geography or social studies classes.

    A few weeks ago my girlfriend found an old 1970s textbook called “Canada’s Cities.” It pretty much embodied the Modernist philosophy of urban planning. One section contained a photo of some beautiful old rowhouses in Toronto, complete with a group of children playing out front, and juxtaposed it with a shot of a banal 1970s townhouse development set behind an acre of grass with not a child in sight. “What kind of housing is better?” It asked, and then proceeded to inform readers that (duh!) the new rowhouses were of course better because they were new and clean and had lots of trees and “no overcrowding.”

  • Ethan Bayne says:

    Jacobs is already memorialized in Toronto, at least in the manner of Christopher Wren:

    si monumentum requiris, circumspice.

  • Ken Gildner says:

    Visited Jane’s home in Greenwich at 555 Hudson Street this September. Couldn’t find any physical indication that she once resided in the neighbourhood, and when I queried the residents, most people didn’t know who she was. Perhaps she would have wanted it that way. :)

  • […] Hace menos de tres años, en abril del 2006, moría en un hospital de Toronto (Canadá) a los 89 años de edad, Jane Jacobs una de las figuras más notables del urbanismo de la segunda mitad del siglo XX. Con este motivo el Boletín de Ciudades para un Futuro más Sostenible publicó en septiembre de 2006 un pequeño homenaje a su figura “Jane Jacobs en la red”, donde se pueden encontrar los principales enlaces para conocerla más a fondo, y que me libera de colocarlos a lo largo del artículo como en ocasiones anteriores. De Jacobs existen cientos de estudios, de análisis, de tesis. Sin embargo, cada vez que uno lee sus obras (y no solamente Muerte y vida de las grandes ciudades, su texto de referencia) encuentra cosas nuevas y ya sólo por esto merecería la pena dedicarle un artículo. Además entiendo que resulta imprescindible hacer notar su existencia a los jóvenes del siglo XXI que, probablemente, pensarán que una autora cuyo libro fundamental es del año 1961 tiene pocas cosas que decir acerca de los nuevos tiempos. Si es así, se equivocan completamente. Jane Jacobs, de Urbanfoto […]

  • […] de Jane Jacobs sacada de Urbanfoto »« 03 May […]