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Jane Jacobs.

If cities are the greenest form of human settlement that we could possibly aspire to, Jane Jacobs left us the owner’s manual for how to build them.

Fifty years ago this month, Random House published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, an extraordinary book in which Jacobs laid out the principles for creating a healthy city. The blocks must be at a human scale, she said. There must be a diversity of activities to keep eyes on the street. The focus of the economy — of everything — should be local, typified by Greenwich Village, the Manhattan neighborhood where she chose to live.

A half-century later, the concepts of mixed-use, moderately dense, walkable urban environments are uniformly embraced by the planning professions, and by the movements of New Urbanism and smart growth. Yet the legacy of Jane Jacobs and this remarkable treatise is decidedly mixed. Today, she is invoked in campaigns to stop the very kind of urban development she advocated.

The story of how Jacobs came to write Death and Life reads like a movie script. A housewife from Scranton with no college degree, she came to New York City, fell in love with its old neighbo... Read more