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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The urbanist and activist Jane Jacobs has died. Her passion was the American city. And her radical ideas on city planning influenced how many of Americans live today. Jane Jacobs set out to understand why some neighborhoods flourished while others wilted. In the process, she discovered that the people who lived in cities didn't much care for the kind of cities that urban visionaries wanted to give them.

Ms. JANE JACOBS (Urban planner): Why, for instance, weren't people walking in the areas that all the artists' conceptions had shown full of happy promenaders? They weren't there. Why did stores that looked very cheerful and were supposed to be doing a great, booming business in the plan languish?

Well, I would bring these questions up with the people who had been responsible for the planning and building of these places and I couldn't get them very interested in these questions. I got instead quite a lot of alibis, mainly boiling down to people are stupid. They don't do what they're supposed to do.

BLOCK: That's Jane Jacobs speaking in New York in 1962, the year after her classic book THE DEATH AND LIFE OF GREAT AMERICAN CITIES was published. Author Robert Karrow wrote the biography of Jacobs's biggest opponent, New York City planner Robert Moses, who wanted highways to crisscross the city.

Mr. ROBERT KARROW (Author, THE POWER BROKER): What he didn't understand or have an appreciation for is precisely what Jane Jacobs understood, the need to preserve the values that make people want to walk around and enjoy a city.

BLOCK: Well, tell us about that face off between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs over this notion of what do you do with a neighborhood, do you put an expressway through it or do you encourage life on the street?

Mr. KARROW: Well, of course, their paths crossed most directly over the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which was an eight-lane road to ram across lower Manhattan, destroying really hundreds of small businesses and thousands of apartments. At the time that he really was actively gearing up to do this, in the '60s, when he started, it seemed almost impossible that any of his projects could be stopped and her fight against the Lower Manhattan Expressway and against Robert Moses is one of the great heroic sagas in the history of New York.

BLOCK: And she won. How did she do it?

Mr. KARROW: Well, Robert Moses had built, he built 13 huge expressways across New York City. Almost every one had community opposition. None of the communities won before this. And part of the reason was that they didn't have someone who could articulate what it was they were fighting for, that they weren't just fighting against a huge highway, that they were fighting for community, for a neighborhood and that that mattered.

BLOCK: How did Jane Jacobs come by her ideas about urbanism, about what cities should be like?

Mr. KARROW: I think in part she came to them because she observed. She didn't go off in an ivory tower and think. The things that she saw, what makes people enjoy a city, what makes them enjoy walking around one particular area and what makes them not enjoy walking around, what turns people off, makes places barren and sterile, she really looked to see what it was that made the difference. She came to see the importance of things being built in human scale. Now, that was not something that had never been understood. But it was something that had never been as well said as she said it.

BLOCK: She also seemed to say some things that might've seemed counterintuitive at the time, but that density was not a bad thing, density was a good thing, and messiness was a good thing in some sense.

Mr. KARROW: Well, because messiness is human and it's the human scale, it's the fact that a city has to be a home to people, that's what she understood.

BLOCK: Robert Karrow is the author of THE POWER BROKER: ROBERT MOSES AND THE FALL OF NEW YORK. He was talking to us about the urbanist Jane Jacobs, who died today. She was 89. The tape of Jane Jacobs came from the New York City Municipal Archives and member station WNYC.

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