She was an urban legend: the saviour of neighbourhoods and intellectual grandmother of today’s Toronto activists

As Eye Weekly‘s Stroll columnist Shawn Micallef puts it, “Jane Jacobs was the greatest gift America ever gave to Toronto.” Jacobs was a woman who hated the profession of urban planning but was perhaps the most influential urban-planning thinker of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, an intellectual, activist, economist and the psychological head of Toronto’s political and activist life for four decades. She died April 25 of an apparent stroke.

Though Jacobs has died, her legacy will long be reflected in the cities of North America and her thinking will influence how cities develop for years to come.

Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Jacobs came to worldwide prominence after moving to New York City for her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which would become — and remains — the single most influential book on city planning. In it she criticized the then-prevailing urban renewal movement that championed highways and suburban tract development, using Greenwich Village as an example of her idealized neighbourhood — vibrant, organic and slightly messy, where commercial and residential life existed side-by-side, where the economy was local, where the streetscape was of paramount importance.

She walked her talk in New York throughout the ’60s, leading the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway. The ultimately successful fight to stop the expressway saw her arrested twice, but saved the internationally celebrated neighbourhoods of SoHo, West Greenwich Village and Chinatown from the wrecker’s ball.

She moved to Toronto in 1968 so her two sons could avoid the Vietnam draft, and soon applied her highway-fighting skills to help lead the fight to stop construction of the Spadina Expressway, which would have paved an entire swath of downtown Toronto, including her home in the Annex.

That levelling such neighbourhoods to make room for expressways is unthinkable today is a tribute to her influence. In many ways, the Toronto we live in today is a product of Jane Jacobs’ thinking, and hers is the intellectual foundation of our most interesting and forward-looking plans for the future. In her books and through her activism, Jacobs gave us the approach to cities that her detractor Lewis Mumford called “higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness”: the elevation of the neighbourhood as the building block of cities, the recognition of the necessity of a thriving street life, of cycling and pedestrianism, the preference for low-rise over skyscraper, the need for trees and the celebration of the small.

Jacobs had three children, two sons and a daughter, but Toronto — and perhaps North America and the world, too — is full of her intellectual children and grandchildren. David Miller is an apostle of Jacobs (“Jane Jacobs’ legacy is embedded in the fabric of our city,” Miller said in a statement at City Hall Tuesday. “[She] literally and figuratively wrote the book on modern city building and most of the principles that we hold dear in how we approach city building”), as was former mayor John Sewell.

You can hear her name dropped by politicians from across the political spectrum in every corner of the country, and you can see her ideas at work everywhere in Toronto: in last year’s uTOpia anthology from Coach House Books, in the work of the Toronto Public Space Committee, the Annex Resident’s Association, Community AIR and, recently, Active 18. Her spirit infuses Spacing magazine and the [murmur] project and a thousand other community initiatives. Jane Jacobs showed us how to — and why we — celebrate our neighbourhoods. She taught us that the often-overlooked everyday details of urban life are the most valuable things about it. She taught us that you can fight city hall, and win, and that if you work hard enough, you may even be able to take the place over.

A few hours after Jacobs’ death was announced, Micallef said “she wasn’t finished yet.” It is the nature of Jacobs’ work that it will never be finished, as cities continue to grow and change and evolve. But though she’s gone, she leaves a legion of spiritual offspring who will carry on. Though we mourn her passing, we can be certain that we’ll live in her Toronto for generations to come.

Originally published as an unsigned editorial in Eye Weekly on April 27, 2006.

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