Housing projects are almost universally loathed today, not least by their residents. Still, one can understand the vision that inspired them. City life is crowded and, at first glance, messy. Even if the middle and lower classes cannot afford their own backyards, we can at least provide them a simulacrum of suburban life. Sixty years ago, lacking the benefit of hindsight, planning officials honestly believed that by bulldozing neighborhoods and replacing them with modern towers, highways, open space, parks, and playgrounds they could cure poverty and save the city.
The woman who proved that it wouldn’t work was an eccentric freelancer named Jane Jacobs. In her 1961 classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs assaulted a century’s worth of received wisdom in urban planning. Jacobs read voraciously; she would test her ideas by imagining dialogues between herself and thinkers from Plato to Thomas Jefferson. But she was no academic. In Death and Life, she cited not one paper nor analyzed one set of data.
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