Jane Jacobs: A Legacy of Community-Based Development

Jane Jacobs

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

Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was a self-taught urbanist and activist who championed a community-based approach to city building. TIME Magazine described her as “the blunt poet laureate of the way modern cities really work.” 

During the post-WWII economic boom, developers began looking at ways to push cities into the future. They thought cities should look more like the new suburbs: clean, car-friendly, less dense, and highly structured. Jacobs disagreed with this premise. According to TIME, she believed “the very qualities that the city planners wanted to squash were what made cities desirable: quirkiness, variety, density and self-regulating community.” 

Jacobs argued that cities aren’t suburbs and shouldn’t be made to feel like them. Many “urban renewal” plans seemed to assume that living in the city was undesirable. She realized that “revitalization” often came at the expense of the community, showing little compassion for residents impacted by the destruction of old buildings and lower rent housing. 

Her 1961 book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was highly influential, pushing back against the popular views of city planners at the time. Jacobs’s stances on urban renewal emphasized:

  • High population density in cities
  • Restoration of old buildings
  • Construction of new buildings of similar scale (as opposed to high rises)
  • Ensuring this mixture of old and new buildings catered to both high-rent and low-rent tenants
  • Short blocks that promoted walking to better engage residents with their communities
  • Mixed-use development (integrated development that incorporates two or more types of land use, including residential, commercial, and industrial)

She saw cities as dynamic systems that changed over time depending on their use and was a firm believer in the importance of residents having input on how their neighborhoods develop. Explaining why development should follow the needs of the community rather than the whims of developers, she wrote: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

Jacobs also spoke out against the destruction of urban communities. In the late ‘60s, an expressway proposed by city planner Robert Moses would have cut through lower Manhattan in what is now Soho and Little Italy in New York City. Jacobs was arrested for storming the podium at a public hearing regarding the expressway and charged with “second-degree riot, inciting to riot and criminal mischief,” according to the New York Times. Her activism was essential in removing Moses, considered New York City’s “master builder,” but also a politically-motivated ravager of neighborhoods, from power, effectively changing the direction of city planning. 

One Omaha’s respect for Jane Jacobs is based around her urban planning ideals, as well as her grassroots activism to keep her community intact and thriving. 

We believe city planning in Omaha can still benefit from the basic principles of community development laid out in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” We also strongly endorse grassroots organizing that works from the bottom up, with residents making decisions that affect their own futures; rather than top-down decision-making that places residents on the receiving end of decisions that shape their lives.

One Omaha works to benefit the Omaha community by addressing the lack of knowledge and resources available for residents to sustain a better quality of life. By delivering programs centered around civic education, systems infrastructure, and awareness, we empower residents to make change in their communities.

This blog was written by Noelle Blood-Anderson, One Omaha’s communications manager. 

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