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Jane Jacobs: The obscure woman who changed the world

One day in 1956, a nervous woman in spectacles stood to give a talk at Harvard University. Her topic was public housing.

Jane Jacobs was living in New York, working as an editor at Architectural Forum and observing everything around her with a keen eye. Like cities all over North America, including Toronto, New York was knocking down slums left and right to build vast public housing projects. Just about everyone thought it was a simply wonderful idea. The teeming, crumbling tenements of Harlem or Cabbagetown would give way to modern apartment blocks and townhouses placed in pleasant park-like estates. Insulated from the crime and clamour of city life, the residents would be safe and happy.

"Tear down the old. Build up the new," New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia had said in 1944. "Down with rotten, antiquated rat holes. Down with hovels. Down with disease. Down with crime. … Let in the sun. Let in the sky."

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Like so many utopian ideas of the 20th century, this one had disastrous consequences. Ms. Jacobs was one of the first to understand what was going wrong. With no shops and few streets running through them, the estates quickly became isolated dead zones sapped of the street life that makes cities hum. Wandering the streets of East Harlem with Bill Kirk, the head of a local social services agency, she saw how those streets worked and how the new estates did not. The projects had erased the street grid that linked communities together. They had wiped out hundreds of businesses, from fruit stores and meat markets to beauty parlours and small manufacturers.

The effect of replacing thriving neighbourhoods with sterilized, lifeless projects "ought to give planners the shivers," Ms. Jacobs told her Harvard audience, according to a new biography.

Her talk caused a small sensation. She was taking on the biggest orthodoxies of postwar urban planning. It was the beginning of her rise from unknown journalist to famous urban thinker and activist, a story well told in Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs by Robert Kanigel.

The sensation grew when she published The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. Her bracing words about how to keep cities vital and safe became the new urban orthodoxies. But the housing projects lived on, monuments in concrete and asphalt to a failed idea.

Fittingly, it is Ms. Jacobs's adopted city, Toronto, that is leading the drive to make them over, with her ideas as a guide. Thanks to the city's real estate boom, the land in these sprawling housing tracts now has great value. Toronto's formula is to let developers build amid the estates and use the proceeds to rebuild and redesign. Condos rise. New, better, public housing takes shape. Supermarkets and banks come back in. New streets are constructed to weave the neighbourhood back into the rest of the city.

Regent Park, just south of Cabbagetown, is the pioneer. A creative collaboration of public housing authorities and a developer, Daniels Corp., it boasts new residential towers, a new aquatic centre, a new community centre – new life. The grim old public housing is being torn down and replaced with a mix of subsidized and market units.

Now, Alexandra Park – just below Kensington Market – is getting a similar do-over. Residents celebrated the end of its first phase last weekend. Lawrence Heights just south of the Yorkdale shopping centre is next.

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It's a huge job and it's taking an awfully long time. Regent Park began in 2005 and has years to go. Housing authorities kicked off the Alexandra Park process more than six years ago. Lawrence Heights isn't scheduled to be done till 2035.

There have been problems along the way. Crime lingers on amid the redevelopment. Some residents complain about being displaced from their old homes as the construction grinds on. Securing the many millions needed to complete all this work is not easy. Toronto's housing authority faces a massive bill just to repair the aging housing stock it already has.

It's vastly encouraging, all the same, that Toronto has started undoing the mistake that Jane Jacobs first recognized all those years ago. And what a gargantuan mistake it was. Walk through Alex Park, as locals call it, and you can see it right before your eyes. The rundown townhouse units facing Dundas Street are set way back, behind a big fence and, on one stretch, a parking lot. The residential blocks are surrounded by lawns, patios and lanes. As its name suggests, it is supposed to imitate a park where people happen to live.

On paper, in those gauzy artist's conceptions, it must have looked marvellous – a green oasis amid the hurly-burly of the city. In practice, it cut its residents off from the life of the community. Without those "eyes on the street," people were in more danger than they ever faced in the old slums. The result, beginning almost immediately, was segregation and decline.

When the projects started to go wrong, planners wondered why people weren't acting as they should in their spiffy new environment. Ms. Jacobs rejoined that if "people weren't behaving the way they were supposed to behave, then something was at fault with the theories about how they were supposed to behave."

Ms. Jacobs saw that the hurly-burly of the city wasn't something to turn our backs on. It was something to embrace. That piercing insight overturned years of standard thinking about urban planning. It changed the way we design cities. Now it is helping Toronto redesign its housing projects. Who would have dreamed when that obscure woman in spectacles got up to give her Harvard talk that she was about to change the world?

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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