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Farewell to Activist
Photo: Lindsey Kaiser
The headline announced a loss for anyone who cares about the delicate balance necessary for urban areas: 

“Jane Jacobs, 89; Writer, Activist Spoke Out Against Urban Renewal.”

According to her obituary printed in the April 26 Washington Post, Mrs. Jacobs condemned urban renewal because it destroyed inner city neighborhoods “...and, despite an initial reputation as a radical and heretic, was vindicated as an influential thinker on city planning....”

The profile says that during the mid-20th century the urban-renewal movement “spent hundreds of millions of dollars clearing communities that were deemed slums, building low-income housing projects and creating parks and highways. Anyone criticizing the model with its political backing, was not looked on kindly.

“In[to] this atmosphere came Mrs. Jacobs, a middle-aged, self-taught architectural and urban-planning specialist with Architectural Forum magazine. She was an incautious woman, at times disheveled in appearance, who tended to anger very powerful people... in her name-making book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961), she recorded what she considered the human toll of urban renewal.

Echoes of Resistance

“She spoke of the displacement of thousands of residents and the destruction of small, if untidy, communities whose diversity she said was crucial to a city’s allure. She maintained that urban renewal worsened the problems it was intended to solve: high crime, architectural conformity and a general dullness infecting life.

“She attacked the arrogance of city planners for making decisions without consulting those affected—stating in a New York Times interview, ‘The planner’s greatest shortcoming, I think, is a lack of intellectual curiosity about how cities work.’

“Decades later, New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger wrote that the book ‘was to urban planning what Rachel Carson’s "Silent Spring" was to the environmental movement, and it is arguably the most important book written about cities in the 20th century.’”

Despite the subsequent popularity of suburbia, Mrs. Jacobs continued to oppose them as well as the soaring high rises in center city. Other books by Mrs. Jacobs include “The Economy of Cities" (1969), “Cities and the Wealth of Nations" (1984), and “Systems of Survival” (1994). To read more about this remarkable visionary, check www.washingtonpost.com.

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Center for Metropolitan Ministries reporting by Kim Ridley. Copyright © 2006 by GraceNotes. All rights reserved. Use of this material is subject to usage guidelines.

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