Monday 22 June 2015

Jane Jacobs' "Downtown is For People"

"These projects will not revitalize the downtown; they will deaden it."

Jane Jacobs was a woman ahead of her time.  In 1958, she penned a prophetic essay for Fortune magazine called Downtown is for People.  City redevelopment projects were all the rage in the United States at the time.  Urban renewal was taking place in San Francisco, New Orleans, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, to name a few.  Jacobs warned that these projects would drive people away from the downtowns.  She suggested that city developpers focus on the buildings rather than on the blocks, focus on the people rather than the automobiles.  She said that rather than looking at the boulevards of Paris, city planners should "get out and walk" to acquire a feel for the city.  

Jacobs criticized the uniformity of these plans, the lack of originality:  "From city to city, the architect's sketches conjure up the same dreary scene; here is no hint of individuality or whim or surprise, no hint that here is a city with a tradition and flavor all its own." (

"All the truly great downtown focal points carry a surprise that does not stale," explained Jacobs.  She mentioned the Times Square Waterfalls and Boston's Arlington Street Church steeple (  To that list I add the Washington Monument and Chicago's Old Water Tower.  Jacobs' fear was that the downtowns would be razed, that the old classic buildings would be flattened.  The author praised New York's Rockefeller Center, a project that was planned around the existing buildings, a project that respected the existing streets.

Jacobs criticized American cities, stating:  "Waterfronts are a great asset but few cities are doing anything with them."  She mentioned how New Orleans remained detached from its river, the Mississippi; not one restaurant sat on its riverfront.  While Cleveland planned to build a convention centre on its waterfront, Jacobs thought that the choice of property was too isolated from the rest of the city.  On the other hand, Jacobs praised Chicago for the lack of barriers along the Chicago River, where the Wrigley Building and Sun Times Building sat, lending the city's visitors an inviting view (

City planners might have read Jacobs 1958 essay for within a generation, waterfront regeneration had entered the American vocabulary, evident in projects like:  Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Boston's Quincy Market, New York's Pierhead Building, San Diego's Waterfront Village, and San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square and Fisherman's Wharf (

Historic preservation entered the American lexicon as well, starting with the National Historic Preservation Trust of 1949.  Museums and historic homes fell under this umbrella.  Historic preservation as part of downtown redevelopment became popular by the 1970's.  Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis' campaign to save Grand Central Station, which started with an eloquently composed letter to New York City's mayor, is one such example   (  Philadelphia was the site of the first historic preservation commission in the United States, which helped preserve the city's treasures (

Note:  For a blogger's take on "Downtown is for People" Fifty Years Later, check out

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