May 4th marked the centennial of the birth of seminal urbanist Jane Jacobs. It has been marked by numerous articles. Some of the better ones are here, here, here, and, for a contemporary piece of revisionist iconoclasm, here. The latter aside, Jacobs remains an important figure, perhaps the most influential voice, in explaining the value of cities, how they really worked, and the damage of the planning elite. She begins her most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, bluntly: "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding."
Written in 1961, the book was the first major refutation of the ideas that had brought urban renewal, dead housing projects, dull suburbia. Her great nemesis was Robert Moses, the powerful city planner and master builder of mid-century New York City. His hubris and the damage he did to New York are masterfully plumbed in Robert Caro's The Power Broker. Entire neighborhoods were bulldozed to make way for his freeways and his influence spread nationwide. She led the crusade that stopped Moses' Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have gutted Geenwich Village, SoHo, and Little Italy. At one point in the battle, she was accused of inciting a riot (talk about the Resistance).
Jacobs was not an ideologue. To her, ideology was poison, offering "pre-fabricated answers" that adherents always fall back on. Instead, she was an observer of cities, a chronicler of what worked and what didn't.
Not once is Phoenix mentioned in Jacobs' first book, even though it was a big city by 1961. Still, I suspect she would have found much to like in the old Phoenix, where there was a "ballet of the streets" downtown and much of the city was focused on use by people instead of automobiles. This was before the freeways, before the teardowns. If she were alive today (she died in 2006), Phoenix would represent every horror she could imaging befalling a city. The Papago Freeway inner loop is classic Robert Moses vandalism. Her critique would include a lack of safety, for she documented how much more crime occurred in "thinned out" Los Angeles than in dense New York.