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MAS Urban Fellow Mary Rowe on Jane Jacobs’ Legacy

Mary Rowe

Fifty years ago, then New Yorker Jane Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities. That controversial, seminal volume has underpinned much of the work of the Municipal Arts Society over the years as well as stimulating much debate about how to approach city planning, and how we should each think about our role in the urban eco-system.

Following her relocation to Toronto in 1968 with her draft-age sons, daughter and hospital architect husband, Jacobs wrote several books after Death and Life. Those subsequent volumes built upon her early observations and focused on city economies and their importance to national economic growth, and the larger concepts of seeing cities as natural systems of self-organization that drive innovation.

Since her death in 2006, invocations of Jacobs’ ideas seem to have grown more strident, with advocates and critics alike claiming their views are in line with Jacobs.  In New York City in particular, the discussion of her work and ideas has often been polarized, pitting her views against the vision and influence of Robert Moses. These ongoing debates about what she meant—or didn’t—has exacerbated  to the point of her work being trivialized to the extreme “What would Jane Jacobs Say?”

The debates, however necessary in a process of moving forward, distract from the ambitious rigor of her writing, where she not only reports her own observations, but challenges readers to participate with her. Jacobs was not predictable in her views while she was alive – her inquiries were so diverse and varied, it was a fool’s errand to presume her opinion on much. What one could be surer of was the degree to which her analysis was based on keen observation and diligence in pursuing the larger patterns of connections. If we must categorize her, then it would make sense to call Jane Jacobs In her introduction to the New Modern Library edition of Death and Life, Jacobs suggested her field of inquiry was one of ‘urban ecology’: how a city’s built form, economics and ethics interact, and together feed a city’s vitality and thriving.

Fifty years after the publication of Death and Life provides us all with a moment in time to reflect on our own state of urban literacy: what’s working well in this urban ecology? Where are the disconnections? How can we as city-builders strengthen the ‘fabric’ of economic, social, cultural and environmental capital flows that underpin the livability of this place?

Abstract theories, formulaic one-size-fits-all proscriptions were not the Jacobsean M.O.—that we can all be sure of.  Rather than relying on interpretations of Jacobs work, a much better pursuit is to learn from her method of examining what is working, and why, training our own eyes and ears to notice the particular, and finding resourceful schemes (both public and private) to support it.

Mary W. Rowe, MAS Urban Fellow

Mary W. Rowe has recently returned to the northeast after several years working in the philanthropy, most recently coordinating the New Orleans Institute for Resilience and Innovation, a loose alliance of initiatives that emerged in response to the systemic collapses of 2005. In October 2010 Rowe joined MAS as its Urban Fellow, to connect the work of the society with livability initiatives across the country, and deepen its role in identifying and promoting responsive, innovative practices and polices in urban planning and design, known more generally as city-building. Previous positions include: a fellowship and subsequent staff position as Vice President, Urban Programs with the blue moon fund of Charlottesville, Virginia, to focus on self-organization in cities as the underpinning of urban and regional social, economic and environmental resilience; President of Ideas that Matter, a convening and publishing program based on the work of Jane Jacobs based in Toronto. Earlier this year Mary was awarded a Bellagio residency from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop her writing on self-organization in cities. She is a contributor to several volumes on urban life, most recently having written the Epilogue to What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs (New Village Press).