Praise for Becoming Jane Jacobs

"In this superbly researched and wonderfully original book, Peter L. Laurence for the first time reveals the depth and complexity of Jacobs's self-education. As a writer, activist, and archetypal New Yorker, Jacobs put herself at the center of a debate on modernism that was also a profound struggle over the future of the American city. This book is both a worthy tribute to Jacobs's genius and a brilliant exposition of the broader context of designs and ideas that made her work possible." —Robert Fishman, Taubman College of Architecture and Planning, University of Michigan, author of Urban Utopias in the Twentieth Century

"Much has been written about Jane Jacobs over the years--from her audacious challenge to top-down urban planning approaches to her successes as a neighborhood activist in New York and later Toronto--but Peter Laurence is the first to account fully for the originality of her thinking and to provide a complex picture of her intellectual formation against the backdrop of urban America in the post-World War II decades. Deeply researched and richly illuminating, Laurence's book will fundamentally change the way we think about Jacobs today." —Joan Ockman, Columbia University, author of Architecture Culture: 1943–1968

"Peter Laurence peers behind Jane Jacobs's distinctive glasses to reveal a keen investigator, a synthesizing intellect, a poetic writer, and an unwavering conscience. Becoming Jane Jacobs adds immeasurably to our understanding of her rich, formative years in New York City, leading up to the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities." —Robert Wojtowicz, Old Dominion University, author of Lewis Mumford and American Modernism

"In the last decade, a solid interdisciplinary field of 'Jacobsean' studies has developed, and many books and edited collections have been published, discussing Jacobs’s life and work. One superb new addition to these studies is architect and architectural historian Peter L. Laurence’s just-published Becoming Jane Jacobs, which provides a careful, eye-opening reconstruction of the events, experiences, and influences in Jacobs’s personal and professional life that led to her writing Death and Life." —David Seamon, Kansas State University, author of A Geography of the Lifeworld and editor of Journal of Architectural and Environmental Phenomenology

"As Peter Laurence recounts in his masterful new book, Becoming Jane Jacobs, Jacobs was actually among the leading voices on urban America prior to the 1961 publication of her landmark book. Laurence’s book is an enormous contribution both to our understanding of Jacobs and more importantly to the 1950’s era that shaped both Jacobs’ perceptions and the future of urban and suburban America... Laurence has created an almost indispensable companion to The Death and Life of Great American Cities... Becoming Jane Jacobs is ideal for book groups addressing urban themes, and should become a staple of college urban studies classes. If you relish the memories of the excitement you felt upon originally reading Jacobs’ master work, Becoming Jane Jacobs will return you to those days." —Randy Shaw, author of The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UWF, and the Struggle for Justice

"Laurence writes lucidly, and the breadth of research supporting this book is impressive... The book is particularly relevant for urban scholars to ground academic interpretations of Jane Jacobs’s writing, but the narrative and depth of this research have produced an equally valuable read for those interested in cities, urban politics and planning." —Jenny McArthur, London School of Economics Review of Books

Becoming Jane Jacobs is "definitely one of the best books of the year. This is the biography of Jacobs I have wanted to read for forty years." —Tyler Cowen, author of The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream and editor of

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Becoming Jane Jacobs is the first intellectual biography to focus on Jacobs’s early life and writing career leading up to her great book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Through an analysis of Jacobs's life and work, including many of her previously unknown writings and other original discoveries, Becoming Jane Jacobs offers a new foundation for understanding not only Death and Life but her subsequent books on cities, economies, and civilizations.

Jane Jacobs is universally recognized as one of the key figures in American urbanism, and The Death and Life of Great American Cities is considered one of the most important books on cities. However, because of her remarkable David-versus-Goliath battles with the "Power Broker" Robert Moses and the urban-renewal establishment, Jacobs has received more attention for being an activist than a thinker, despite having written a list of influential books on cities, economies, and other subjects. Her intellectual skills have often been reduced to unusually keen powers of observation and common sense.

With Becoming Jane Jacobs, Peter L. Laurence shows that what is missing from such stereotypes and myths is a critical examination of how Jacobs arrived at her ideas about city life. The book shows that although Jacobs had only a high school diploma, she pursued a writing career that well prepared her to become an architectural critic just as postwar urban renewal policies came into effect. After starting her writing career in the 1930s, and developing her career as a writer and propagandist for the US government in the 1940s, Jacobs was immersed in an elite intellectual community of architects, city planners, and academics as an editor of the Time Inc. magazine Architectural Forum in the 1950s, a critical decade for US cities. The 1950s was the moment when Americans were deciding between living in new suburbs or rebuilding and modernizing old cities. Laurence reveals that when faced with this choice, Jane Jacobs not only sided with urban renewal, but idealized the field of city planning—  before soon coming to see the problems with outdated and anti-urban concepts and methods for improving cities.

Laurence traces the evolution of Jacobs's thinking. Through her visits and studies of redevelopment projects—in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cleveland, Washington DC, Fort Worth, and East Harlem, among other places—and close interactions with an elite group of people— including editor Douglas Haskell, shopping mall designer Victor Gruen, housing advocate Catherine Bauer, architect Louis Kahn, Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon, urban historian Lewis Mumford, urban theorist Kevin Lynch, and collaborators at the British magazine The Architectural Review— Jacobs's understanding of suburban development and urban redevelopment were equalled by few others. Laurence shows that Jacobs contributed significantly to architectural criticism and urban design; participated in important academic conferences; and became known as an expert writer on cities even before she started writing Death and Life.  

Through the analysis of many of Jacobs's previously unknown writings and other original discoveries—including her government employment records, FBI files, work memoranda, and correspondence with notable acquaintances and confidants—and through an understanding of her ideas in their historical context, Laurence asserts that Death and Life was not the spontaneous epiphany of an amateur activist but the product of a professional writer and experienced architectural critic with deep knowledge about the renewal and dynamics of American cities. Becoming Jane Jacobs, the product of more than a decade of research, shows that The Death and Life of Great American Cities could only have been written by Jane Jacobs. But at the same time, by showing how Jacobs's ideas evolved, Laurence suggests ways that we can become more like Jacobs ourselves, and continue to develop our understanding of better cities.  

Becoming Jane Jacobs was supported by a grant from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts. Related research and excerpts were published in Journal of Architectural Education, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Journal of Urban DesignTime, The Architect's Newspaper, and Metropolis magazine. The author's other publications can be found at