The University of Virginia this weekend honored the centennial of one of the 20th century’s most influential thinkers on urban planning.
“I heard about Jane Jacobs in the same way that on Grounds you hear about Thomas Jefferson,” said Ila Berman, dean of UVa’s architecture school. “She was a journalist, an urban theorist and an activist and had an enormous influence on the development of our cities through her writings.”
Jacobs was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916. She is perhaps best known for her 1961 work “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” which soon became a staple of planning schools.
“I’m standing here because of Jane Jacobs,” said June Manning Thomas, a professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan. “It was her writing that had the vibrancy and actually had students very interested in urban planning.”
Jacobs, who never had any formal training as a planner, was instrumental in efforts to stop a highway project that would have run through Washington Park in New York City. In 1968, she moved to Toronto, where she spent the rest of her life.
While universities across the world have been holding similar programs honoring Jacobs, the UVa symposium had a local connection.
“In 1996, the architecture school gave to Jane Jacobs the Thomas Jefferson Medal in Architecture,” symposium organizer Suzanne Morse Moomaw said. “Her father had gone to medical school here and she had a lifelong affection and admiration for Thomas Jefferson.”
Moomaw called the two-day symposium that wrapped up Saturday a “moveable feast” with events held across Charlottesville. One event, held at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center and sponsored by the Blue Moon Fund, was a screening of a new film on Jacobs’ life and work called “Citizen Jane.”
Berman said Jacobs sought to understand why some places are successful while others are not.
“She was a great believer in the activation of space, the importance of density, the importance of diversity and the importance of uniqueness,” Berman said. “One of the things I always loved was the importance of sharing the city and feeling safe amongst strangers.”
Peter Laurence, an associate professor at Clemson University and author of “Becoming Jane Jacobs,” said Jacobs was a critic of architects who paid no attention to how their buildings and developments affected social life on the street. In particular, Jacobs was critical of regimented superblocks like the ones that were created in urban renewal projects across the country.
“City streets were both socially important, as well as economically important,” Laurence said.
Jacobs also is known for the natural surveillance concept of “eyes on the street,” where mixed-use areas tend to be safer because of the number of people who live and work there.
But Jacobs’ legacy is not just about urban planning.
“Jacobs is a figure that everyone in our [architecture and planning] schools has heard about but they have not necessarily heard of her in schools of economics or social sciences,” said Sonia Hirt, dean of the architecture school at the University of Maryland. “This is interesting because she thought of herself as a geographer. She also thought her greatest contribution was in urban economics.”
Hirt said Jacobs was skeptical of solving problems through mathematics and said a successful practice in one city might not work in another.
“The particulars really depend on the place,” Hirt said. “You can never take this to the point where it can be calculable. There is way too much variation. She was against this calculative impulse of the modern town planner.”
Thomas said Jacobs was a keen observer.
“She was really about how you discover things and how you examine the city or any social phenomenon,” she said. “She probably saw herself as more of an economic geographer or as an economist than an ecologist but she’s big enough for all of us.”
Thomas said Jacobs was interested in understanding how trade works. Other books by Jacobs include “The Economy of Cities” and “Cities and the Wealth of Nations.”
“She spends a lot of time trying to help us understand the nature of trade,” Thomas said. “What’s the nature of imports? What’s the nature of exports? Why do some cities and some metropolitan areas succeed and others don’t?”
Stuart Andreason, a community and economic development adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, said Jacob’s work as an economist helped influence many who shaped trends in urban planning and city building.
“She’s probably the intellectual mother, like it or not, of Richard Florida and the creative class, many of these ideas of how cities are growing, what things make them prosperous,” Andreason said.
Jacobs’ final book, “Dark Age Ahead,” was published in 2004, two years before she died.
Moomaw said while this weekend’s event was held to commemorate Jacobs’ time, it was also a chance to prepare for the future.
“This is about the work yet to be done,” Moomaw said. “It is an opportunity for us to refocus and rethink our efforts based on the example she gave. There are two things she taught us above all else — clarity and boldness. At this time in our country, those two things are not out of style.”