#ChooseToChallenge: A tribute to Jane Jacobs


Crystal Cheng

"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody"

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Jane Jacob’s ecosystemic approach in understanding urban design anticipated many widely recognised principles of a sustainable city, such as accessibility, compactness, connectivity, walkability, and diversity.


Her 1961 edition of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” was a critique to the planning and zoning fad at the time, which was centered on a functionalist separation of uses. She argued that cities were living ecosystems and advocated the concept of mixed-use and a bottom-up approach to planning. Her works, which still hold as highly relevant today, described the importance of what a good city street life provides.



In reflection of her first edition, Jacobs in her 1993 edition, recognised that she was engaged in studying the ecology of cities, which she analogically defined as a composition of “physical-chemical-biological processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies”. She pointed out that city ecology is a process of continuous discovery towards understanding the functioning of cities as complex ecosystems “vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed”. (Jacobs, 1993)


Today, Jacobs is still controversial because she goes against the overly aestheticized conception of urban green. She does not believe that cities must be green and incorporate nature to be more sustainable. Jacobs instead sees sustainability as a lively system of streets and walkways incorporated into an environment to stimulate economic growth, social activities, and urban prosperity. She also stresses that parks, although well intended to be community connectors, fall at the risk of merely being an over-fantasised image of nature, and reminds us that they can become undesirable if they do not foster a diversified and intense use.


“You can neither lie to a neighborhood park, nor reason with it. “Artist’s conceptions” and persuasive renderings can put pictures of life into proposed neighborhood parks or park malls, and verbal rationalizations can conjure up users who ought to appreciate them, but in real life only diverse surroundings have the practical power of inducing a natural, continuing flow of life and use. Superficial architectural variety may look like diversity, but only a genuine content of economic and social diversity, resulting in people with different schedules, has meaning to the park and the power to confer the boon of life upon it.”


Controversy has a way of denigrating women in the 19th century, especially in the male predominant field of urban planning. Jacobs had to endure scorn and was reduced to merely a “mother” or a “housewife”. However, her discourse offered hope to those who were duly informed that plans drawn up in the corridors of power demanded them to relocate. For not standing down to backroom politics, Jacobs is admired as a hero of grassroots activists.


Although gender is not an obvious theme in her work, she was also breaking down the walls of separate gendered spheres the entire time she was alluding to an inclusive vision of public life. And hence from her, we learn to maintain a calm and educated front, while simply saying “no”. #ChooseToChallenge



About the author

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Crystal is an aspiring landscape architect and urban designer at the National University of Singapore. She is passionate about designing cities for high levels of liveability and understanding how cities interact with their environment at the macro and micro scale. In an ideal world, Crystal believes that all systems should be concerned with achieving a sustainable balance and resilient design in the face of climate change.