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The Legacy of Citizen Jane


Legendary urban activist and author Jane Jacobs once wrote that, “big cities have difficulties in abundance, because they have people in abundance.” At the time she wrote it, the world’s population was less than half of what it is now. Still, her belief in empowering urban citizens to get involved in their communities and shape their city has permanently transformed the way we think about our great cities.

“Big cities have difficulties in abundance, because they have people in abundance.”

In 1958, Jane—back then a little-known reporter and activist from Greenwich Village—applied for a grant from The Rockefeller Foundation to write a book. The book was to be about the life of cities: about sidewalks and tenements—about the ineffable energies that animate city streets, and the subtle forces that threaten them. Jane received the grant, and today, that book—The Death and Life of Great American Cities—is considered the definitive work on urban planning.

It has been 100 years since Jane Jacobs’ birth, but our approach to urban sustainability continues to be guided by her unlikely vision of diverse, dynamic, accessible cities. Today rapid urbanization, globalization, and climate change pose unprecedented challenges to maintaining the safety, security, and stability of the world’s great cities—especially for their poorest residents. That’s why, over the past decade, The Rockefeller Foundation has committed more than half a billion dollars to help cities and communities around the world to build resilient systems to withstand the shocks and stresses of urbanization—and the related challenges of globalization and climate change.

In preparing for a world where 75 percent of the population will live in cities by 2050, I joined city leaders from around the world last month at Habitat III to discuss the adoption of the New Urban Agenda. There we announced the first-ever international recipients of the  Jane Jacobs Medal—Dr. Joan Clos and PK Das. PK Das is a builder of bridges—both figurative and literal. A self-described “architect-activist,” he has designed townships, waterfronts, resorts, museums, stadiums, offices, and schools. But he’s also organized the slum dwellers of Mumbai to campaign for equal housing rights. Since beginning his career as a medical doctor, Dr. Joan Clos has served his city as mayor of Barcelona, served his country as Spain’s Minister of Industry, Tourism, and Trade, and served the global community as Under-Secretary General of the United Nations. As the executive director of UN-Habitat, Dr. Clos is also the driving force behind its bold New Urban Agenda.

Created by The Rockefeller Foundation in 2007, this Medal has honored individuals whose work has created new ways of seeing and understanding cities. To call attention to her spirited and passionate work, we have also funded the documentary feature Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, which details her life and legacy.

“Vital cities,” Jane wrote, “have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties.” We live in an increasingly uncertain world, and sustaining it requires new approaches, new ideas, and new solutions. Cities are indeed at the frontlines of responding to the consequences of inequality and climate change, but they are also at the center of innovation.

And as we celebrate 100 years since the birth of Citizen Jane, we must also look ahead to the next 100 years, and ready ourselves for the challenges our cities will face in the twenty-first century.

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