Over the span of my (almost) thirty years, I’ve moved nearly two dozen times, which means I have had a chance to see cities and communities of all shapes and sizes. I’ve lived everywhere from a small, rural city in Florida to the bustling streets of Manhattan. Along the way, I became interested in cities. I remember driving through Nashville one summer, watching as people crossed back and forth across the street, popping in and out of thriving small businesses. At night, I took in the bright lights and loud sounds of the city’s electric music scene. But the next day, I watched homeless people line up for a bed in a shelter, just a few blocks from the city’s gleaming Riverwalk. I could not reconcile these patterns and my mind filled with questions: How do cities come to exist? How do neighborhood identities emerge? Why do some cities flourish and others die?
Awhile after, living in Asheville, North Carolina, I picked up a copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs, a spirited New Yorker who is perhaps best known for defending the famed West Village from demolition by Robert Moses. In that book, Jacobs answered many of the questions I had about how cities are managed and organized. She also presented a robust critique of the planning and design principles of her day and outlined what I think are brilliant alternatives. Perhaps most importantly, Jacobs made the case that strong communities and cities are the result of engaged citizens, not central planning.
This principle is as important now as it was since then. Active, engaged, and informed citizens are essential for solving some of our world’s biggest challenges. Jacobs’ demonstrated this through ten years of spirited activism on behalf of New York City. Her amazing story teaches us that perhaps we can have more of an influence in the direction of our local communities than we think. What does it mean to care for our communities? Drawing from Jacobs story, here are three tangible guidelines.
01. Prove that you care.
Death and Life, was, in Jacobs’ words, an “attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” At the time of her writing, American urban planners were, to borrow a Beyoncé line, drunk in love with the notion of urban planning. Many of them believed that the only thing cities needed to thrive was better central planning, better central design. For several decades after the Great Depression, the federal government supported these ideas, making available millions of dollars for planners who would fight blight, clear slums, build roads, and design new (preferably modernist) buildings. Because of this simplistic thinking, many cities were gutted from the inside out, hundreds of communities were torn apart, and millions of people displaced.
The book propelled Jacobs to near-celebrity status in the world of urban planning and many of her ideas become the foundation for today’s New Urbanist movement. In her writings, Jacobs urged planners to slow down, to consider that cities are not only collections of brick and mortar; they are collections of people. Communities are the ties, both loose and strong we build with our neighbors, with the shop owners, teachers and vendors at the farmers market. Design should honor the needs of people and the communities they’ve built. More importantly, Jacobs cared about design because she realized our shared civic environment—whether that’s a farming village, small town, or megapolis—heavily influences our sense of self, our sense of our duty toward our neighbor, and our sense of what’s possible.
02. Go out into your community.
One afternoon in the early 1950s, Jacobs came home from work, opened her newspaper and spied a flier begging Greenwich Village locals like herself to help save Washington Square Park. Robert Moses, one of the cities most ambitious and powerful urban planners, wanted to put a highway through the neighborhood park, shutting down what had been a hub for artists, neighbors, children, and protests since the 1800s. Jacobs fired off spirited letters to city officials (including then-Mayor Robert Wagner) urging them to close the park to vehicular traffic. That letter marked the beginning to Jacobs’ career as an activist.
She wasn’t content to just write letters. She moved from sitting at her typewriter to standing at street corners, mobilizing neighbors, and raising awareness. She applied her investigative skills as a journalist to decode the city’s planning process, urged friends in influential social roles to speak up, and coordinated neighbors, putting everyone to work, even her children who asked passersby for petitions in the park. She recruited local press, attended public hearings, and once got herself arrested for destroying tapes at a meeting with city officials.
Jacobs was truly extraordinary in her capacity to explain complex matters, mobilize other people, and strategize to reach tangible goals. As a result, she became something of a local hero: over the next ten years, her capacity for tangible action would save the Village from Moses’ “renewal” plans three times. But look beyond the hero status and Jacobs shows us that community care is for anyone who understands a simple principle: “Control comes from below and support from above,” and who is willing to get out on the street and work toward that end.
03. Read. Then read some more.
Standing up to developers, especially Moses, required grit and enthusiasm but also knowledge of what was really going on. Jacobs pursued this knowledge, gradually piecing together a functional understanding of the urban ecosystem and eventually became one of the leading experts on healthy urban design. Put simply, Jacobs did not oppose certain developments simply because they threatened the status quo. She opposed them because they were bad ideas, and she could prove this with facts. When the dramas of the West Village began to unfold, her self-education paid off: She was able to support her spirited activism with rock-solid knowledge.
Jacobs' example shows us that knowledge is essential. Learning about our communities can take various forms, whether that’s meeting with local politicians for coffee, chatting with neighbors, spending an hour per week reading local news or attending a community meeting.
It’s easy to look at a figure like Jane Jacobs and back away, convinced that we’re not smart, connected, or savvy enough to really have much of an influence. But that isn’t true! Jacobs could have told herself that lie, given the lack of her formal education. But Jacobs did not let the lack of a college degree stop her from seeking knowledge. She realized the strength and health of our communities is directly linked to our ability to contribute our curiosity, courage, and perspective to the matters at hand, whether that’s cleaning up a local park or designing an economic recovery plan.
It’s been four years since that drive through Nashville; three years since I finished Death and Life, and I have more questions than ever. But when I get overwhelmed, all I need is a window seat at a café or a walk through a bustling downtown. I see gorgeous buildings and roaring traffic. I see flashing stoplights and beautiful parks. But that’s not what moves me most. What moves me are the strangers on the street, the shopkeepers, the mothers with children, the man reading a newspaper at the table next to mine. What moves me are the same thing that moved Jacobs: the people. They are why cities matter and they are why it’s worth it to care.
Photo Credit: Luisa Brimble