Is Jane Jacobs a commonplace? How is it possible that ideas developed some decades ago, in a very different world, are in the spotlight? What makes Jane Jacobs’ thoughts so appealing today? Is it justified? These are some of the questions addressed in this complication of articles edited by Sonia Hirt and Diane Zahm (associate professors in urban affairs and Planning at the college of architecture and urban studies at Virginia Tech)in an interdisciplinary and international (with case studies from Beirut, Kansas or Chiang Mai) review of the impact of Jane Jacobs´ intellectual and activist work. The book, The urban wisdom of Jane Jacobs, follows a structure of her main contributions as philosopher, urban economist, urban sociologist and urban designer, trying to go beyond the general assumption of Jane Jacobs as only-urbanist and offering an extensive perspective of how she was able to build a strong vision of urban life from different perspectives.
Jane Jacobs´ writings and activism constitute a legacy on a wide range of topics she has been influential throughout time: environmental design, crime prevention and criminology, public health and psychiatry, public policies, urban planning, economics, philosophy of arts, identity conflicts, housing and community development or architecture, topics covered by different authors that confront her impact in their disciplines nowadays from a critical perspective. This is, probably, the main reason why Jane Jacobs has kept influential: while other urban thinkers keep their influence to the narrow vision of those familiar with particular disciplines, she has been one of the most prominent examples of how to cross the lines of specialised visions of the city. Actually, she talks about society and space and not cities and the fact that she had no formal education on particular urban disciplines is another explanation of how she was able to connect the dots of different features of urban life.
Andrew Manshel wrote that iconoclastic article, Enough with Jane Jacobs already in 2010 raising the issue of how she has been adopted as conventional wisdom without a critical review (beatification) of how she was wrong in some topics. It just shows a fatigue of finding her name cited everywhere around urban discussions and practices (not surprisingly, Jane Jacobs leads the list of top urban thinkers of all time by Planetizen). Anyhow, certain ideas from Jane Jacobs ´writings such as “eyes on the street”, “the four generators of urban diversity”, “togetherness”, “sidewalk ballet” or “organised complexity” have influenced theory and practice of urban design and placemaking all these decades and are gaining (even) more attention in these days in which cities struggle to find solutions to the new challenges derived from financial constraints and social discontent. Most of her critics (starting from Robert Moses) stated she was not a strong theorist and was unsystematic in her research, in an attempt to keep urban studies in the walled circle of academic and formal knowledge but, in the end, apart from her theories and writings, her best legacy was to help open new ways of understanding cities and research approaches based on everyday life analysis, street level focus, emphasis on process over product and inductive methods.
Who knows and how to know are, probably, the two main disputed principles in urban studies that Jacobs helped to change. In these times in which social networks and interactions are putting things upside down in the way we live, Jacobs´ ideas are enjoying a renovated momentum and her ideas on the prevalence of weak ties, everyday life interaction, unpredictability and casual networks still make sense.