What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs


Oakland CA, 15 April 2010 — The Center for the Living City and New Village Press have partnered to publish a compendium of original essays that carries forward the late Jane Jacobs’ passion for urban activism and democratic participation. What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs looks with keen eyes at the present and the future of our communities through the unique views and insights of more than thirty respected activists, scholars, economists, planners, and public figures around the world whose work has been inspired by Jacobs.

Urbanist-activist Jane Jacobs is best known for her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. By contrasting the master plans of developers and policymakers of her time with her observations of the lively, self-organized nature of city life, Jacobs revolutionized the discipline of urban planning and expanded the boundaries of community participation.

The contributing authors of What We See further Jacobs’ genius of everyday wisdom through their own creative and diverse visions of socially just, environmentally sound, and economically prosperous communities. In addition to its 33 essays, the book includes a study guide to promote critical debate and a shared understanding of the challenges and possibilities of creating change in our communities.

What We See has been supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, which also funded Jane Jacobs in writing The Death and Life of Great American Cities fifty years ago. Additional funders of What We See include Furthermore: a program of the J.M. Kaplan Fund, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, The Zeidler Family, Greg O’Connell, Martha Jean Shuttleworth, and The Newburgh Institute.


Planners, preservationists, and the like inherently know that Jane Jacobs’ lessons and theories written in The Death and Life of Great American Cities have been true and relevant to all people and cities since before she put words to paper and will continue to be applicable to our modern era and beyond. However, Death and Life is not Jacobs’ only work and it is not a book that everyone will voluntarily choose to read; as essential and thrilling as it is, it can be dense.

The contributors to What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs translates these lessons from Jane Jacobs in manners that will appeal to planners, academics, scholars of Jane, or those who have heard in passing. What We See is about opening our eyes as communities. (Appropriately, the introduction is titled, “Eyes Wide Open.”) The book is part tribute to Jane Jacobs, but more importantly it is meant to keep her lessons current and to bring them to new levels, across all disciplines.

While the range from planner to any community member is a wide group of readers, the reach is possible because of the organization of the book: six sections with an average of five essays that vary in tone and writing style. These essays are written by renowned professionals in their respective fields, some who knew Jane, some who met her once, and some who have simply been influenced by her work. Some of these essays are written in the first person point-of-view, which seems more approachable to those new to Jane. Others are more philosophical and probably more appealing to students of planning. The editors have taken great care to properly group the essays and bring the reader through each section; however, this is not to say that a reader must read the sections in order. When in doubt of the section’s overall theme, the reader can easily refer back to the introduction, in which the sections are explained beyond their titles.

A disclaimer to readers is that What We See can be dense at times; it is not the type of book you want to read right after final exams end. However, a topic of such magnitude and influence warrants thorough discussion from all angles. True to the book’s function, there is a study guide at the end of the book, meant for communities, classrooms, any group interested. There are questions for every essay, but they do not necessarily only apply to that essay or chapter. In other words, some questions would suffice for conversation starters, even outside the context of the book. What We See may not have been the quickest read, but it did turn the gears of my brain and introduce new perspectives. As always, the parallels between historic preservation are amazing, yet not surprising. Anyone interested in quality of life and how communities function, will benefit from reading and discussing What We See. So get comfortable, get into a planning and community mood, and get ready to think and learn from and see how others learn from one of the greatest urbanists and activists of the modern age. Whether you read one essay or one section at a time or read the entire book from cover to cover, the chapters are thought-provoking and well worth the read.

To read more the book, visit the What We See website. To read more about Jane Jacobs read a mini-biography of Jane on the Project for Public Spaces. Buy the book here.

* The press release is from the New Village Press website, while the review is written by Kaitlin O’Shea.