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JANE JACOBS 1916-2006

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'When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense, ' wrote the writer and urban activist Jane Jacobs, who has died at the age of 89. It was her sense of the richness and excitement of the life of cities that made her probably the 20th century's most inuential commentator on urban affairs.

Born Jane Butzner in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, she became a secretary in New York after deciding not to go to university. She was soon writing articles inspired by her close observation of the life of the great city. William H White, himself a brilliant observer of such matters, commissioned the articles that led to her first and most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Written in 1958-60 and published in 1961, The Death and Life attacked contemporary planning practice and passionately advocated traditional, mixed-use neighbourhoods. Jacobs castigated the planners and architects who she saw as being in thrall to utopian ideas; who were more concerned with what developments looked like than how they worked; or who were reshaping cities in the interests of the car - or all three.

Her criticism of the garden city pioneer Ebenezer Howard was typical. 'Howard set spinning powerful and citydestroying ideas, ' she wrote.

'He conceived that the way to deal with the city's functions was to sort and sift out of the whole certain simple uses, and to arrange each of these in relative self-containment.' She argued that Howard conceived of good planning as a series of static acts. 'In each case the plan must anticipate all that is needed and be protected, after it is built, against any but the most minor subsequent changes.

He conceived of planning also as essentially paternalistic, if not authoritarian.'

From 1952 to 1968 Jacobs was associate editor of Architectural Forum. She was a member of the New York Community Planning Board, campaigning effectively to save Greenwich Village and other neighbourhoods, particularly from the expressway-building ambitions of Robert Moses.

In 1968 she, her architect husband, and two sons moved to Toronto after the boys declared that they would rather go to prison than accept the draft to Vietnam. She was soon a notable public figure in that city, successfully opposing its expressway plans. She became a Canadian citizen in 1974.

Jane Jacobs pioneered approaches to citizen participation in planning that have since been widely adopted, and her prescriptions in The Death and Life, based on her careful observations, have become orthodoxies of urban design. She further developed her thinking about cities and economies in a series of remarkable books such as Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1989) and Systems of Survival (1992).

Robert Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group and author of The Dictionary of Urbanism

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