April 19, 2016

On sale today: Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview


Jane Jacobs whiteHailed by the New York Times Book Review as “perhaps the single most influential work in the history of town planning,” Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities was instantly recognized as a masterpiece upon its publication in 1961, and hasn’t gone out of print since. These interviews capture Jacobs at her very best.

Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview is an essential reminder of why Jacobs was—and remains—unrivaled in her analyses and her ability to cut through cant and received wisdom. The book goes on sale today. You can get your copy here, at your local independent bookstore, Barnes & Noble, or Amazon

The following is an interview conducted by Eve Auchincloss and Nancy Lynch, and originally appeared in the October 1962 issue of Mademoiselle. 

Jane Jacobs, a former associate editor of Architectural Forum, is the author of a vigorous attack on the dogmas of urban redevelopment called The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Since its publication a year ago, it has been much argued and discussed. City planners tend to be highly critical, but people who feel that our cities are being dehumanized have responded enthusiastically to her fresh and imaginative ideas. Diversity, she believe, is the source of urban vitality, and it is achieved by mixtures of residences, business, and industry, of old and new buildings, of rich and poor; by busy streets with short blocks and many people living together. No matter how they like her assumptions, everyone agrees that she has started something. For the first time in generations, new ideas about what makes a city work are being discussed and even, tentatively, applied. This is the ninth in Mademoiselle’s series of taped interviews, “Disturbers of the Peace.”

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: If cities are to help us lead a good life, what should they be like?

JACOBS: Well, they have to be very fertile places economically and socially, for the plans of thousands and tens of thousands of people.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: And do you think that proper cities can make for a creative life?

JACOBS: They can in the sense that big cities offer the greatest range of opportunity for people with unusual wares or new ideas. It takes a great big city to support either commerce or culture that isn’t absolutely standardized. And if we have big cities that are unable to offer services, then we are not getting the salient advantages. What’s the point of having the disadvantages—and they do exist—and none of the advantages?

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: But look at the foolish kinds of specialization you get. In New York all the art, for instance, is stuffed into two or three museums instead of being dispersed. The Whitney used to be downtown, but now it’s just an annex of the Museum of Modern Art.

JACOBS: The idea of officially lumping all like things together is ridiculous. I’m convinced people go to the Whitney as an afterthought. When it was in a place by itself people went to see what was there.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: How could you start a reverse process?

JACOBS: These things don’t happen inevitably. All this segregation has been deliberately prescribed—like the mammoth museums, the Lincoln Centers, the housing projects. Extraordinary powers of government have been created to make possible such islands of single use, because it was thought that this is the way to organize cities. It’s not just a matter of reversing the process, though, because mere planlessness isn’t enough. We have bad unplanned areas as well as bad planned ones. Change will come about—and I believe it will—first from understanding the problem a city is, and then changing the methods of dealing with it. But there’s a step before that, and this sounds negative, but I think we won’t really get things done differently and better until citizen resistance makes it impossible—or too frustrating—to do things as they are being done now.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: How bad will things have to get before the rebellion begins?

JACOBS: I think it’s started, not just in New York, but in many other big cities—Chicago, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Boston. There’s no reason we can’t begin improving right now. I certainly don’t think we should simply call present methods to a halt and consider that in itself progress. All it is is an opportunity to begin to do things differently and better.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: How important a role does the transportation mess play in the death of great cities?

JACOBS: It’s very serious, but it’s not the cause of our trouble. It wouldn’t matter whether we had the automobile or not: the kind of wholesale planning we’ve been getting would still be very bad planning.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: And the automobile is just an excuse for it?

JACOBS: Yes, one of the excuses, not a reason.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: How about banning private cars from cities?

JACOBS: That’s a pretty negative approach. I think people are pretty suspicious of schemes that offer them nothing for something. We should get rid of the automobiles, but in a positive way. What we need is more things that conflict with their needs—wider sidewalks, more space for trees, even double liens of trees on some sidewalks, dead ends not for foot traffic but for automobiles, more frequent places for people to cross streets, more traffic lights—they’re an abomination to automobiles, but a boon to pedestrians. And then we should have more convenient public transportation.

AUCHINCLOSS AND LYNCH: Turn parking lots into skating rinks?

JACOBS: Yes. We constantly sacrifice all kinds of amenities for automobiles. I think we can wear down their number by sacrificing the roadbed to some of our other needs instead. It’s a switch in values.

ISBN: 9781612195346
PAGES: 128

You can get your copy of Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview here or at your local independent bookstore