A brief biography of Jane Jacobs

A brief biography of Jane Jacobs

Brophy, Alfred

Jane Jacobs has been a giant in the field of urban design and planning for more than forty years, bringing a refreshing dose of common sense and respect for human vagaries and humane values into the technocracy of traditional professional land use design. Ms. Jacobs, frequently referred to with such superlatives as the “greatest urbanist,” changed the way people think about cities, beginning in 1961 with the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In that book, which has become an urban manifesto, Jane Jacobs taught her contemporaries to pay attention to humanity in urban planning.

She championed the power of ordinary people to shape buildings and urban spaces, and she opposed urban “renewal.” She taught that cities can counteract urban flight and blight by creative use of urban areas, mixing housing with businesses. Death and Life, with its focus on the local and the individual, was an important apostle of the 1960’s ethic that places humans-not institutions-at the center of public thought. Her writings are the intellectual origins of the “new urbanism” shaping city planning from the 1980s into the transcentury period.

Jane Jacobs, born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, is largely self-taught. Shortly after Death and Life was completed she wrote in an autobiographical sketch that “I went to the public school [in Scranton] and learned a great deal from the teachers in the first and second grades. Thereafter I think I mostly taught myself by reading secretly with a book hidden under the desk.”

Her eclectic educational and work backgrounds-she first studied stenography and then enrolled at Columbia College, and she worked as a stenographer, secretary, and journalist-mirrors her rejection of technocratic formulae in urban planning. While Ms. Jacobs was writing for Architectural Forum in the 1950s, she became increasingly concerned that “there was almost no curiosity… about how big cities work.” Ms. Jacobs’s curiosity led to an article in Fortune in 1958, “Downtown is for People,” which in turn led to an offer from the Rockefeller Foundation to finance the writing of Death and Life.

Prior to Death and Life, Ms. Jacobs published Constitutional Chaff (1941); she has followed with such important works as The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), Systems of Survival: A Dialog on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992), A Schoolteacher in Old Alaska (1995), and Nature of Economies (2000).


* Visiting Professor, Boston College Law School (2000-01); Assistant. Professor, University of Alabama.

Copyright Boston College, School of Law Summer 2001

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved