I was lucky enough, as a high school senior in New York City in the mid-’70s, to take an elective course in “urban studies.” The course consisted of reading a bunch of real books, not textbooks, and talking about them. (Later I came to understand that virtually every college course, at least in the humanities and social sciences, proceeded along the same lines.)
I’ve forgotten all but one of the books we read. But the one I remember, Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I remember vividly, for its calm, reasonable, and, to me, profoundly persuasive rejection of the Big Central Plans approach to urban design — which had previously made perfect sense to my 17-year-old mind. Diversity matters, Jacobs argued; people crave variety in their experience of their surroundings, and engagement with other people, and living cities offer people wide and varied opportunities for hanging shingles and rubbing elbows and delighting others.
Jacobs’ book gave me a lifelong, visceral understanding of principles that I would later see popping up in other, unexpected contexts, thanks to writers like Kevin Kelly and Steven Johnson, and experiences I’d have in helping build one small corner of the online cityscape.
Jacobs died today at 89 [thanks to Kottke for the news].