Jane Jacobs and 21st-Century Preservation

Posted on: February 27th, 2014 by Mike Powe 4 Comments
Photo Credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Jane Jacobs | Credit: Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ-62-137838.

Jane Jacobs | Credit: New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Library of Congress, Reproduction Number: LC-USZ-62-137838.

Though Jane Jacobs passed away in 2006, her legacy is very much alive today, echoed in the work of professionals in a variety of fields. She may not have identified as a preservationist, but Jacobs was a forceful advocate for the preservation of older buildings. She argued loudly and provocatively that older buildings were critical assets for distinctive local businesses and healthy, livable neighborhoods.

Many of Jane Jacobs’s ideas and arguments have clear import and relevance to the challenges facing preservationists working in cities today, so it might be timely for preservationists to refamiliarize themselves with her ideas.

Lately, Jacobs’s name has been popping up in some very prominent places. Last December, the Municipal Art Society of New York, along with the Urban Land Institute, held their annual Jane Jacobs Forum and hosted more than 500 attendees. On the West Coast, filmmakers in Los Angeles are currently planning a film about her, cleverly titled A Matter of Death and Life in a nod to Jacobs’s classic 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Two of today’s most prominent national urban thinkers, Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser, have taken to quoting Jacobs in recent years. In 2012 Florida, known for his work on the “creative economy” of thriving cities, repeatedly took time in public interviews to quote another well-known Jacobs’s adage--“New ideas must use old buildings”--as he considered the decisions of Google and other tech firms to locate in old buildings in major cities. Glaeser, meanwhile, took to pointing out where he felt Jacobs’s then-50-year old ideas failed to stand up to current scrutiny in his 2011 book, The Triumph of the City. Jacobs’s name is everywhere you look.

Here, for both the unfamiliar and the well-versed, are a few key facts about Jane Jacobs and a few pertinent lessons Jacobs may offer for 21st-century preservation:


  • Jacobs was neither trained as a preservationist, nor a city planner. She worked as a journalist, first as a recent high school graduate in Scranton, Pa., and later as an associate editor for Architectural Forum. Her outsider status likely enabled her to have a fresh perspective on city life and city planning. That outsider status also led Jacobs to later be criticized by urban planners and economists who pointed to her unscientific writing style and arguments lacking quantitative data as evidence.
  • Jacobs’s 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, has been called “the most influential American text about the inner workings and failings of cities.” Using plain language and arguments built upon observation and intuition, Jacobs set the practice of planning on its head, arguing for planning concepts and land use policies that didn’t reach national prominence until decades later. Such ideas include land use zones explicitly allowing a mixture of residential and commercial uses; the notion of designing for “eyes on the street” as a way to naturally make public spaces safer; the importance of distinctive, locally-owned and operated businesses to support neighborhood vitality; and the value of retaining a mix of old and new buildings to support varied social and economic activity throughout the diurnal cycle. Before it was in fashion, Jacobs wrote about cities as though cities themselves were living organisms with functioning ecologies, an analogy that has grown increasingly commonplace and finds regular application in discussions of sustainability and resilience.
  • Jacobs was a community activist who wasn’t afraid of breaking rules. She famously warred against Robert Moses, a powerful city official in New York City who aimed to build a major freeway through the heart of Manhattan and to demolish human-scaled neighborhoods and replace them with office and residential towers. Jacobs eventually won out and blocked the freeway construction, but she was arrested on multiple occasions along the way.
Jacobs had a powerful rival in Robert Moses, then New York City’s powerful “construction coordinator.” The two clashed over plans to build a freeway through Manhattan, but Jacobs ultimately prevented the project, likely preserving large swaths of Greenwich Village and SoHo from demolition. | Credit: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

Jacobs had a powerful rival in Robert Moses, then New York City’s “construction coordinator.” The two clashed over plans to build a freeway through Manhattan, but Jacobs ultimately prevented the project, likely preserving large swaths of Greenwich Village and SoHo from demolition. | Credit: Library of Congress. New York World-Telegram & Sun Collection.

What should preservationists take from Jane Jacobs to face today’s challenges?


  • Jane Jacobs took a practical approach to thinking about cities and the role of older buildings in healthy neighborhoods. Jacobs argued for the preservation of “not museum-piece old buildings … [but] a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings” (Death and Life, p. 187). She suggested that old buildings are partially useful simply because they often provide more affordable spaces than new buildings.
  • Jacobs focused on the performance of place. From the sheer nature of her firsthand observations to the measures by which she evaluated success, Jacobs was interested first in how city districts worked and how to make them work better as livable, interesting, and equitable places. In one well-noted section of Death and Life, she detailed the “intricate sidewalk ballet” that occurred outside her home on an everyday basis. Attention to the regular actors and activities of a place guided Jacobs to some important observations, and similar careful attention to a Main Street or landmark district could be similarly instructive.
  • To Jacobs, diversity was paramount, and she considered diversity in a multitude of forms. She argued that neighborhoods need a mix of recreational, commercial, industrial, and residential uses and that cities need a mix of economic engines, including both startup entrepreneurs and more established business models. She also argued that neighborhoods need a mix of old and new buildings and not simply one or the other.

In May 2014, the National Trust’s Preservation Green Lab  released a report that uses extensive city mapping and statistical analysis to demonstrate just how right Jane Jacobs was. This report shows, with data, how older, smaller buildings and diverse urban fabric play an important role in supporting vibrant communities and healthy, livable cities. Our initial work focused on the cities of Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., but we plan to add additional cities in the months ahead. Be on the lookout for the report in late March.

For more on the Older, Smaller, Better report visit www.oldersmallerbetter.org.

About Mike Powe

Mike Powe is the senior research manager at the Seattle-based National Trust Preservation Green Lab.

Sustainability, Urban

4 Responses

  1. Peter Donalek

    March 2, 2014

    This is a very good description of the efforts of an individual who had the ability and wherewith all to speak out against the forces that want change for the sake of change.
    They are especially relevant to efforts here in the Uptown area of Chicago where local elected officials and staff seem bound and determined to allow developers to savage the stock of historic buildings. Although Chicago is supposedly a place with a very strong history of architectural advocacy the present generation of City officials seem unaware that the demolition of fifty year old buildings is not consistent with the latest concepts of Green and Sustainability.

    • Mike Powe

      March 4, 2014

      Thanks, Peter. We’d love to build out our analysis with Chicago data to demonstrate what a valuable role older buildings in Chicago play in supporting sustainability and strong small businesses. Stay tuned…

  2. Liz Vasile

    March 3, 2014

    Does your data extend to a diversity of income levels or housing costs within a given neighborhood? I write this from San Francisco, where diversity is being reduced to the safer ground of ethnicity and architectural style, to the exclusion of class and income, and much of the city feels poised to become as homogeneous as a suburb under the onslaught of massive investment and speculation.

    • Mike Powe

      March 4, 2014

      I’ve been hearing a lot about those concerns from San Francisco, Liz. We have some data on economic diversity, and we’re always interested in adding more data as new information becomes available. I’m looking forward to sharing the report and hearing what you think!