Quick, what’s the most important invention? The wheel earned itself a major reputation a few millennia ago and hasn’t lost ground since, so that’s a good option. The light bulb, the telephone, and antibiotics all have proponents to make a convincing case, as do the airplane and the refrigerator. And in my line of work it’s hard to overlook all the good that’s come from the printing press. The internet too, for that matter. Thanks, Al. But I’ll stump for an invention that predates almost all of these, going back to the very beginnings of history and beyond: the city.
If you think of cities as elaborate machines, it’s easy to take the next step and try to figure out why some of those machines work better than others. It’s not always because of the most obvious reasons, the massive installations and industries that some cities have and others don’t. Often it’s the minor details, the ones that seem to have arisen by happenstance, like how the doors to the houses open or how wide the sidewalks are.
One of the first people to understand this was not an architect or builder, but a journalist and activist without any formal training in city planning. Jane Jacobs was initially rejected by the establishment (the disparaging phrase “mom in tennis shoes” might have been coined decades ahead of its time to refer to her) but she’s since become the godmother of contemporary urbanism. She successfully led the fight against Robert Moses and his attempt to mow down Greenwich Village and replace it with an expressway (see Robert Caro’s The Power Broker for more on that subject) and her own book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has become a bible for civic-minded individuals everywhere.
The full story of her life and her accomplishments has finally been done justice by Robert Kanigel in his new biography Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, a must-read for anyone who cares about human-oriented growth and development ... continued