This book offers readers a fascinating intellectual history of Jane Jacobs’ development as a critic and scholar of urban design. Of particular interest is how this deeply researched book delves into the early stages of Jacobs’ career, focusing with particular detail on her formative years as a working journalist in New York. Laurence shows how, as a writer and associate editor at Architectural Forum and other publications during the 1950s, Jacobs drew on her observations of modern architecture and urban renewal planning—as well as her professional connections to leading urbanists of the day—to develop and sharpen her now-legendary critique of top-down modernist planning. In doing so, Laurence convincingly dispels the mythology that has formed around Jacobs as an “amateur” urbanist who burst unexpectedly onto the scene in 1961. Far from it, Jacobs was a working writer and reporter, whose successive professional encounters with the failures of modernist planning and urban renewal compelled her to offer, as Laurence writes, “a wholly new vision of cities” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—a vision that attempted to nurture, rather than poison, the fragile “ballet” of the street.
This is a book about urban communication in two major senses. First, as noted above, it documents how Jacobs’ early career as a professional journalist formed the crucial foundation for her development as a leading critic of modernist planning and perhaps the most influential urbanist of the late 20th century. Second, Laurence’s book also shows how Jacobs developed a particular understanding of the built environment as a medium of human communication, as a crucial means for shaping and enabling particular forms of social interaction. Not only did she help develop this view of the communicative city in her early writings and intellectual work (e.g., presenting at conferences on “urban design criticism”), but she was instrumental in bringing this view to wider audiences, both before and after the publication of her seminal 1961 book.
In sum, we cannot think of a more worthy selection for the UCF Jane Jacobs Book Award, particularly on the 100th anniversary of Jacobs’ birth in 1916.