What does Jane Jacobs still offer to Portland for its current challenges?

A free showing of a new film on Jacobs’ life and ideas will explore the question and its answers (Friday October 19th, 7-10 PM)

The urban champion Jane Jacobs had a special relationship with the City of Portland over its evolution as a more diverse, mixed, walkable place. A frequent advisor to grass-roots activists in the city, Jacobs championed lively, diverse neighborhoods, and she also led citizen activism against powerful special interests.

Jacobs was the author of the 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a landmark work that remains an inspiration for many planners today. Yet in it, she excoriated planners for failing to listen to people, failing to genuinely involve and empower them, and failing to develop effective strategies to promote healthy, equitable urban development.  Not content to criticize, she also explained, in lucid detail and with keen powers of observation, just what was required to remedy those shortcomings.

What does Jacobs say to Portland today?  Quite a lot, it turns out — as documented in the new film Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.  The acclaimed film — earning a 94% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes — focuses on Jacobs’ heroic activism in New York City, her victories over bullying planner Robert Moses, and other related struggles, at a time when New York neighborhoods were threatened with destructive new freeways and other out-scale developments.

In Portland a few years later, citizen activists would be inspired by her example to fight bad freeway projects, destructive hospital and shopping mall expansions, and demolition of historic treasures.  Those activist successes laid the foundation for the city’s subsequent urban renaissance,  cementing Portland’s legacy as an icon of urban regeneration and enlightened planning.

But that was then and this is now, we have won those battles, and we have nothing to learn from that past — right?  Sadly, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Today we also face a wave of destructive projects,  stiff-arming government officials, the corrosive influence of development money, and counter-productive policies that only exacerbate our problems.  Jacobs’ activism — and moreover, her profound ideas on the nature of cities — still have very much to say to us today.

As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs was not only an activist, but also a deeply insightful scholar and urban scientist, teasing out the workings of cities and the dynamics of urban economies, and offering insights that we could put to work for human benefit.  Her observations on “organized complexity” and a “web way of thinking” marked her as an urban visionary of the first rank.  (And an economist, political theorist and more.) Above all she was a champion of diversity, of the mixing of people, activities, building types and ages, and (most overlooked) geographic locations.

As we have written elsewhere, Jacobs cautioned against “silver bullet” solutions, “rushing monocultures of the new,” and over-building in the cores of cities (including building too high). She eschewed simplistic “whack-a-mole” approaches to our urban problems, instead focusing on a more multi-faceted approach, strategically and geographically. As we wrote previously:

Jacobs argued for a more diverse kind of city – diverse in population, diverse in kinds of activities, and diverse in geographic distribution too. Hers was a “polycentric” city, with lots of affordable pockets full of old as well as new buildings, and multiple opportunities waiting to be targeted. In such a region, economic growth — and likewise the demand for housing — could be tempered and modulated to remain more even and equitable.


On Friday, October 19th, from 7 to 10PM, the Northwest Neighborhood Cultural Center (1819 NW Everett Street) will feature a showing of Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, the acclaimed documentary on Jacobs’ life and ideas.

Come see this remarkable film on her life’s work, followed by a panel discussion on Portland’s current situation, and the still-urgent need for citizen activism. What does Jacobs say to Portlanders, at a time when our fabled neighborhood association system is being deconstructed?

The event is hosted by the Northwest Examiner, the Sustasis Foundation and International Making Cities Livable. Admission is free, but donations to cover expenses are appreciated.  You can sign up here (although you can also just come, if space is available): https://www.eventbrite.com/e/citizen-jane-the-battle-for-the-city-continues-tickets-49501655785 .  We hope to see you there!

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