Susanna McLeod

Susanna McLeod

Glimpses of Canadian History : Email:

Jane Jacobs, Social Activist for Neighbourhood Living

An Order of Canada recipient, Jane Jacobs was a writer and social activist promoting green spaces, short commutes, and cities that can be “lived in.”

“Cities have the capability,” Jane Jacobs said, “of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Jane Jacobs believed in cities, big beautiful cities thriving with the ordered chaos of people working and living in the urban landscape. Not living long miles out of town in suburbia with time-consuming and costly commutes. Not slicing through the beating heart of neighbourhoods with hideous cement and asphalt highways. Jacobs believed in homes and apartments, lush parks, shops and workplaces, all central and green. She believed in community.

Jacobs Wrote About Working Districts

Scranton, Pennsylvania was the birthplace of Jane Isabel Butzner on May 4, 1916. Her father was a doctor and her mother was a teacher and a nurse. On graduation from high school, Jane began a volunteer job “as assistant to the women’s page editor at the Scranton Tribune,” said Project for Public Spaces. Soon, the Great Depression shook the country, but Jane still made the brave step of moving to New York City, earning her way as stenographer. The young woman also began freelance writing for newspapers and magazines, focusing on working districts of the city.

Taking a job in 1942 as feature writer with the Office of War Information, Jane met an architect who would become her future husband. Jane Butzner and Robert Hyde Jacobs married in 1944. (Eventually, the Jacobs family grew to include a daughter and two sons, Burgin, James and Edward.) She later switched to writing pamphlets and articles for the US State Department of Information, until that office moved to Washington without Jane. Continuing her education, Jane attended Columbia University’s extension school, studying courses that captured her interest – political science, zoology, economics and geology.

Jane Jacobs, Chairman of the Committee to save West Village. ca 1960

Jacobs A Community Activist

Architectural Forum magazine hired Jane as Associate Editor in 1952. The young writer had gained knowledge and perspective, and was becoming “increasingly critical of conventional planning theory and practice, observing that many of the city rebuilding projects she wrote about were not safe, interesting, alive or economically sound,” said Project for Public Spaces. Jane gave speeches and wrote articles for other publications. With a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation, said Mary W. Rowe in Canadian Encyclopedia, she wrote a book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (still available for purchase). “Urban Activist” was Jane’s informal title, and she was about to dive into a David and Goliath battle with the prestigious New York City Parks Commissioner.

Jane Jacobs Versus Robert Moses

In 1962, Commissioner Robert Moses was a powerful urban planner. He intended to ram an expressway right through the thriving New York neighbourhoods of West Village and Washington Square Park; the vicinities of Soho and Greenwich Park would be razed and gone forever. In that era, projects were top-down, without much consultation nor consideration of the people actually living in the areas. Strongly objecting, Jane became Chairman of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Campaigns led to demonstrations, and Jane was arrested for her part in 1968. The battle led to a sharp change in urban planning and eventually, the New York Goliath lost the fight. David, er… Jane Jacobs and the multitude of urban-change supporters were victorious.

The Vietnam War erupted, causing Jane, her husband Robert and family to move to Canada in opposition. Settling in Toronto, Ontario, the Jacobs again took up a fight against an expressway to be expanded across communities of the Canadian city. The Stop Spadina Campaign was a success in the mid-1970s, no doubt with the assistance of Jane’s experienced voice. Finding improvements were needed in Toronto, as in New York, Jane criticized Ontario Hydro and airport expansion, but also applauded other planning advancements. Jane became a Canadian citizen in 1974.

Cities “organic, spontaneous and untidy”

Jane’s belief was that cities should be “lived in,” with people of varying ages residing in a mix of housing, with

Jane Jacobs quote on appreciation and importance of urban park space.

diverse businesses and activities. Cities, in Jane’s view, were “organic, spontaneous and untidy,” natural ecosystems for people. Grassy parks, lush gardens, work spaces and living spaces could combine to make wonderful, flourishing communities. “The presences of great numbers of people gathered together in cities should not only be frankly accepted as a physical fact…,” Jane is quoted, “they should also be enjoyed as an asset and their presence celebrated.”

A month-long celebration of Jane’s work was held in Toronto in the fall of 1997. The honour of Officer of the Order of Canada was bestowed upon Jane Jacobs in 1998 and she was given the Order of Ontario in 2000. She refused many honorary university degrees, not believing in such credentials, but she did accept the “Vincent Scully Prize in Architecture” from the National Building Museum in Washington, DC in 2000.

Urban Advocate Jacobs Died 2006

Participating in cultural and healthy neighbourhood programs throughout the early 2000s, the urban advocate continued to promote community growth and balance in Canada. Jane Jacobs died on April 25, 2006 in Toronto, Ontario, mere days away from her 90th birthday. Her husband, Robert Jacobs, had passed away a decade earlier. As well as their surviving three children, the Jacobs were grandparents and great-grandparents.

Along with her legacy of a large body of articles, Jane wrote a number of eye-opening books, some of which are required post-secondary reading in economics, architecture and urban planning courses:

  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House and Vintage Books, 1961.
  • The Economy of Cities, Random House, New York 1969.
  • Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Random House, New York 1984.
  • A Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty, Random House, New York 1980.
  • The Dark Age Ahead, published by Random House, New York 2004.

This article first appeared on Copyright Susanna McLeod

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