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Jane Jacobs: Her Contribution to the Development of Planning

Jane Jacobs is a renowned American born Canadian writer whose contribution in urban planning cannot be ignored by any stakeholder of urban related studies. Her approach to urban planning was in sharp contrast with most urban planners, a fact that made her be on a coalition path with most of the planners. Jacobs’ central idea of urban planning was based on what happens in cities as opposed to what should happen. She argued that what most urban planners were doing was theorizing on what cities should do as opposed to what cities actually do. She therefore studied cities as they were, as opposed to theorizing what the cities should actually do. In her views, most planners only advocated for the ideal cities and planned for those ideal cities while in reality, the cities were not ideal. Real cities have many issues that many planners consider a nuisance, but for Jacobs these issues were real sources of diversity.

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As far as diversity is concerned, Jacobs focused on four main issues. The first idea that was central to Jacobs’ arguments was the mixed use of urban development. According to Jacobs, (1961), a good city should have at least two primary uses, preferably more than three. Jacobs view primary uses as those activities that possess the ability to attract human traffic. Urban centers with more than one primary activity have the capacity to ensure that it experiences a strong traffic of humanity at all times of the day. When people live near where they work, and work near where they shop, their activities posses the ability to attract further human activities such as industries as well as development of residential areas. In opposition what most established city planners of 1960s had advocated for, Jacobs fought against the segmented use of urban centers arguing that mixed use of the urban centers was more beneficial than the restricted use of these areas. The segmentation advocated sought to demarcate city use such that there were areas for office, commonly known as central business districts, residential areas and specific industrial areas.

Another radical idea that Jane Jacobs advanced about cities was based on her view of cities as ecosystems of various states of buildings. As advocated by orthodox planners, short and old buildings in cities were a waste of space and should therefore be discouraged. However, according to Jacobs, cities should be viewed as ecosystems of various buildings. Having cities with only tall skyscrapers that are all in good conditions bring monotony which kills the attractiveness of the cities. Cities should therefore have at least a mixture of new and old building to represent the diversity of these cities. She also argues against what the orthodox planners believes is a waste of space; the idea of many roads within the city. Citing the example of New York’s, Chelsea district, Jacobs show how lack of ample road space is a waste of cities, a sharp contrast to what the orthodox planners advocate for. She associates the lack of people in this district wih limited roads due to poor planning based on the myth that providing roads is a waste of urban land.

The third aspect that characterized Jacobs’ ideas was the issue of planning for the cities. Unlike most urban planners of the time who advocated for a Top-Down approach in city planning, Jacobs advocated for Bottom-Up community planning approach where the urban center residents were involved in the planning process. This idea was reinforced by the belief that it is the residents who use the cities and thus it would be a prudent idea if their input was considered in the process of deciding what the city development approach should be. In her views, the segmentation of cities into zones set aside for specific functions arises due to the Top-Down approach to urban planning which makes city planners not to take the views of the city dwellers in considerations. Since she did not believe in this approach of management, Jacobs advocated for a system that could ensure that various parties are consulted on their views before a new system is put in place (Glaeser, 2000). This was the only way, according to Jacobs, that urban planners would focus more on the real cities rather than theorize on ideal cities. In her views, cities failed to work effectively due to over reliance on outside planners, rather than having the local planners plan for their own city development needs. Having local planners was seen by Jacobs, (1961), as the main reason why the cities could not work as planned.

Her fourth idea about cities was based on the density of the city’s populations. In the contrary to what most orthodox planners viewed dense populations, her views on densely populated cities were positive as she believed that dense populations were vital sources for development. Traditional planners were of the opinion that dense populations were main sources of filth, crime and many other social evils such as drug trafficking, drug abuse, sexual crimes among others. However, Jacobs dispelled this myth by showing how a dense population was an asset for the cities as the big population was important for cities to develop both physically and economically. Although she acknowledged that density on its part was not the only element for vibrant cities, she successfully differentiated higher density and overcrowding, with the latter being defined as a product of poor planning by urban planners. High density, according to Jacobs, provides a critical mass that is necessary in the development of urban places.

Jacobs is also well-known for her criticism on the rationalist urban planners. She argued that rationalist planners were obsessed with how cities should work failing to recognize that the contemporary cites were far from being ideal cities. She was also greatly opposed to many urban development approaches that made her be on a coalition with the rationalist planners. Her notable criticism was that directed to Robert Moses, the most outstanding urban planner of the first half of the 20th century in New York. Moses is respected for his planning especially for express highways and tall buildings. When Moses planned to construct the Lower Manhattan express highway, Jacobs actively opposed this project arguing that it lacked the capacity to eliminate unnecessary traffic form the city center (Freedman, 2000). To her, the project could only increase the problem of traffic congestion thus further choking the city. Worse still, the proposed project could interfere with the quality of life of people living in city neighborhoods while at the same time, affect business at the downtown side of the city, probably by replacing the old businesses with new businesses, thus killing diversity of the city (Jacobs, 1991).

Jacobs also criticized Moses’ plan to have a 12-lane mega freeway running across the heart of the Midtown Manhattan. Jacobs viewed such a project as a main destroyer of cities. She argued that what the plan proposed to do was to the detriment of the urban development. Another major criticism that Jacobs directs to Robert Moses was the latter’s belief on low cost dwelling. Moses was for the idea of slum clearance. The cleared slums would later be replaced with long blocks of buildings. In areas where he succeeded, the fact can be attested today when one examines the dilapidated high rise buildings that characterize the South Bronx (Dalton, 2009). Contrary to this view, Jacobs believed that replacing slums with high rise dwellings was a killer of urban diversity. She was for the idea that poor people should have low cost housing projects that are run not by the governments, but by private enterprise. This would make these dwellings to be constantly renovated as the private owners would have a greater responsibility towards their property’s appearance. One cannot also fail to see that Jacobs visualized a low cost city dwelling estate that has diverse styles of constructions as the constructors are private enterprises as opposed to what Moses was doing concerning the long humongous buildings that he was putting in place for the slum dwellers in his effort to clear slums. The low cost units, just like the short blocks of urban cities are necessary for the economic development of cities (Jacobs, 1961).

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Jacobs’ ideas have also been criticized by other people. First, her approach has been criticized that it leads to gentrification of neighborhoods. This is the process whereby urban neighborhoods become too expensive for the affordability of the original population (Montgomery, 1998). This increase in cost of living is caused by the urban economic processes that spiral to the urban neighbourhood pushing the original occupants away and in its place it brings the new lifestyle conscious urban dwellers (Schurch, 1998). However, despite this criticism, Jacobs had covered this phenomenon and referred it as the “self-destruction of diversity”

Having covered various issues attributed to Jane Jacobs, one cannot fail to see her significance in planning. First, Jacobs’ ideas were realistic especially her argument on diversity. It is true that all urban centers need to embrace diversity for effective development. Unlike Moses’ view of the ideal cities, Jacobs looked at how real cities and urban centers operated. She also managed to show how population is not a problem for cities, but rather overcrowding which results from poor planning was the real menace. Another significance of Jacobs was her idea of self-destruction of diversity where she demonstrated how the economic development of cities killed diversity of the cities (Sam, 2001).

In conclusion, it is important to note that although Jane Jacobs had no formal training as an urban planner, her books remain among the most read works on urban planning by planners and other interested stakeholders. It is also worth noting that the contributions of Jacobs in the way cities actually work rather than how they should work provides helpful insights to planners as it provides avenues for analysis why cities don’t work as planned. Jacobs’ contribution in planning therefore is of great essence to urban planners regardless of the knowledge that Jacobs was not a trained urban planner.


Dalton, L., 2009. “Introduction to the Essays on Influential Planning Books: The Power of the Published Idea”, Journal of the American Planning Association 75. (2) pp 257-59. Print.

Freedman, A., 2000, “Jane Jacobs, Urban Agitator,” Architecture Magazine, 2000. Print.

Glaeser, E., 2000. Cities and Ethics: An Essay for Jane Jacobs. Journal of Urban Affairs. 22 (4) p. 473-93. Print.

Jacobs, J., 1961. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Random House, Print.

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Jacobs, J., 1991. Putting Toronto’s Best Self Forward [Housing on Toronto’s Main Streets] Places, Toronto, McGraw Hill. Print

Montgomery, R., 1998. Is There Still Life in The Death and Life? Journal of the American Planning Association 64 (3). pp 269-74. Print.

Sam, B., 2001. Jane Jacob’s Moral Explorations, 28 B.C. Environmental affairs [e-journal]. Web.

Schurch, T., 1999. Reconsidering Urban Design: Thoughts about Its Definition and Status as a Field or Profession. Journal of Urban Design, 4.1. pp 5-28. Print.

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StudyCorgi. "Jane Jacobs: Her Contribution to the Development of Planning." December 24, 2021.


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