3 Placemakers You Should Know, Who Aren’t Jane Jacobs

Ask your average citizen to name an urbanist and they’re most likely to say Jane Jacobs.

In her seminal book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jacob’s idea of neighborhood “vitality,” proposed a vision of bustling, human-centered cities that contrasted the modernist focus on efficiency (especially traffic efficiency) that dominated planning at the time. Her activism against the top-down planning of Robert Moses and others won the public a seat at the planning table previously dominated by men in smoke-filled rooms.

To Jacobs, the goal of city-planning is to “foster lively and interesting streets.” Since she set this goal, others have taken up her mantle – in many cases filling in the gaps of her original thinking. Jacobs was not without blind spots. She had a conservative streak, distrusting interventions in the natural order of the city and even dismissed the achievements of planners like Frederick Law Olmstead and Daniel Burnham who achieved plans of great vision in New York and Chicago. Jacobs also blamed many of the city’s problems on the aesthetics of modernist architecture and the arrogance of government rather than fully interrogating the power structure and economics behind urban renewal.

The following three thinkers all built upon key strands of Jacob’s thinking. While they may never be as influential as Jacobs, they should be known to anyone activating placemaking.

Roberto Bedoya

Jacobs celebrated the power of everyday people to create a sense of place, and many of her favorite neighborhoods were dense immigrant and working-class areas of Boston and New York. Many have since written about every day or “DIY” urbanism – the neighbor who maintains a flower garden in the road median, the brightly painted house, or the beach chair dragged out to the sidewalk – small gestures carried out mostly by residents that create Jacobs’ “vitality.” 

Roberto Bedoya is a writer and the current head of Cultural Affairs for the city of Oakland, CA who has written extensively on the power of non-professionals, specifically immigrants and people of color, in placemaking.  To Bedoya, immigrant communities decorate and place-make their spaces to establish their belonging and to make themselves seen in a society that would often like them to stay quiet and out of the way. 

This kind of placemaking comes not from designers or planners but from the everyday acts of the community: “it’s the culture of the lowriders who embrace the street in a tempo parade of coolness, it’s the roaming dog marking its territory, it’s the defiance signified by a bright, bright, bright house, its the fountain of a peeing boy in the front yard, it’s the porch where the respected elders keep watch… These challenge America’s deep racial divide through acts of ultravisibility…”

Bedoya sees placemaking as more than a rational exercise in making a place more pleasant or walkable, but as a potentially radical way to express community identity.  As a practitioner, Bedoya has pioneered strategies for including local artists and citizens in placemaking. His ideas challenge professionals to consider the identity-shaping powers of these projects and the contributions of non-professionals to their plans. 

Suggested Reading: Spatial Justice

Dolores Hayden 

At the time of Jacob’s writing, the desirability of city-life was in question with the continued disinvestment in American cities and the flight of the middle class to sprawling suburbs.  Jacobs believed that city life was the most vibrant, least isolating, and most economically beneficial way for people to live.  Dolores Hayden took her ideas a step further by considering the liberatory potential of dense living.  Hayden was an architect who designed from a feminist perspective.  To her, the suburban home was a prison for the American housewife, where large lawns, car-dependent streets, and rigid separation of land uses stranded them on a domestic island with limited access to the outside world.  Hayden offered an antidote to this isolation and its resulting impact on gender roles with her Non-Sexist City

The Non-Sexist City was made up of mixed-use districts, shared public spaces, and pooled services like laundry and childcare calibrated to cut down on domestic labor and create the time and space for women to work and socialize.  This blending of services, jobs, and residences was far ahead of its time, and while Hayden used her skill as an architect to lay out floor and site plans for these communities, she also proposed a model for the governance of these places as well.  Hayden saw that families were increasingly offloading domestic labor on low-paid maids, nannies, and other houseworkers.  She envisioned a city where housing communities operated like co-ops, with each resident performing a manageable portion of cleaning, gardening, or childcare based on their ability. Making an egalitarian community for Hayden meant more than figuring out the spatial arrangements of a place but figuring out its social structure as well.

Jacobs believed cities gave residents the maximum number of options for jobs, connections, and entertainment. As cities continue to struggle with wealth inequality, and society continues to struggle closing the gender gap, Hayden shows us the potential of smart design and governance to challenge embedded inequalities.

Suggested Reading: Dolores Hayden on the Politics of Care


Michael Sorkin

Michael Sorkin was an architect and prolific critic. Like Jacobs, Sorkin was extremely critical of architectural “blandness,” but he took his dislike a step further by interrogating the power and economic incentives behind the increasing sanitization of architecture and space. To Sorkin, blandness was not the result of a lack of effort from designers or developers, but the goal of corporations and developers. In his seminal book “Variations on a Theme Park” Sorkin edited a collection of writing on everything from mall design to Disneyland to show how bland spaces could be easily controlled and monetized.

Sorkin thought authentic interactions between people were being limited by hostile architecture and clever design which kept Americans in a cycle of benign consumerism while pushing out anyone who could not afford the price of admission. To Sorkin, all plans needed to be designed to welcome in the full spectrum of humanity in all its glorious mess.  He was firmly against designing for any sort of idealized target audience, and thought the projects that set out to do so would always end up being exclusionary.  Like Jacobs, Sorkin was also a talented writer able to communicate his ideas simply to a wide audience. 

Unlike Jacobs however, Sorkin believed that if architecture and planning could serve the power structure, the fields could also challenge it. He dedicated his experimental studio Terraform to bold, city shaping ideas that tackled the challenges of the time including a tongue and cheek proposal for community watchtowers in New York which would be used to spy on Police activity, and a masterplan for New York City based on making the city entirely environmentally self-sufficient.

Suggested Reading: Architecture as a Vehicle for Change, NYT

In Conclusion

These three thinkers all built on the human-centered way of looking at cities Jane Jacobs popularized.  They show us that placemaking can address issues of power and identity while also encouraging us to not be afraid to propose bold visions for the future of urban life.