Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Celebrating Our Foremothers: Jane Jacobs

If you haven't already noticed from some of my other posts, I love cities. However, the highly male-dominated field of urban planning is a lonely place for a woman. Jane Jacobs is an exception to this rule and a true leader in the urbanist movement (and an inspiration to me). Her attitude towards combating urban issues like poverty, crime and racism have greatly influenced how I see the problems faced by people who live in cities.
Jane Jacobs is an American-born Canadian urbanist, writer and activist. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1916. She studied at Columbia University's School of General Studies where she took courses in a wide range of topics including geology, zoology, law, political science, and economics.

In the 1950's and 60's, Jacobs really claimed her own vision as an urbanist. During this time she was instrumental in organizing grass-roots efforts in New York City to block Urban Renewal projects that would have destroyed local neighborhoods. One famous campaign Jacobs fought was in opposition to another famous urbanist, Robert Moses, and his building of the Lower Manhattan Expressway that have would divided local neighborhoods, which she was successful in stopping.

Jacobs is best known for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in response to US urban renewal policies of the 1950s. Unlike the mentality of the time to simply bulldoze and demolish crippling cities and neighborhoods, Jacobs advocated the end of zoning laws, which would help to create dense, mixed-use neighborhoods resulting in diverse and vibrant urban community. She went on to pen 6 more books including The Economy of Cities and Dark Age Ahead.

In 1968, Jacobs moved to Toronto where she quickly became a leading figure in her new city and helped stop the proposed Spadina Expressway. She was selected to be an officer of the Order of Canada in 1996 for her achievements in writings on urbanism. Additionally, the Community and Urban Sociology section of the American Sociological Association awarded her its Outstanding Lifetime Contribution award in 2002.

In 2006, Jacobs died at the age of 89. Although this very influential woman is gone, her ideas of how cities and neighborhoods should operate lives one. Through her work, she kept the citizens of the communities and neighborhoods she worked with at the center of everything she did.

Jacobs was an urbanist who cared about the communities, not just the big business cities. The principles she followed in her urban activism are some that I hope that I can also adopt in my role as an urban activist. Jacobs' philosophy on urban living affected the way I live my life to be a more aware and active member of my urban community. I participate in community activities like festivals and clean-ups, read my community newsletter and take a move active voice in discussing issues like infrastructure and schools than I ever did before.

Jane Jacobs is a real inspiration to women who want to find a voice in their urban communities and care about their neighbors and the cultural fabric of where they live.

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