Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, died yesterday. Jacobs' great book is full of implications for various fields, including law. Her work has many themes and nuances, but it can be taken as a celebration of the diversity, the spontaneity, and even the wildness of the great cities -- where you might encounter, on any given day, people and activities that surprise and even astonish you, and where the diversity itself provides a kind of commonality for people from all walks of life. Among other things, Jacobs' book helps to illuminate the public forum doctrine in first amendment law, which says that parks and streets must be left open for expressive activity: Parks and streets provide unanticipated, unchosen encounters at the same time that they offer common experiences for heterogeneous people. Both the unanticipated encounter and the common experiences are valuable for a democracy. In fact democracy itself seems to me one of Jacobs' basic topics.
Jacobs' work on cities deserves special attention in a period in which "personalization" and "customization" are so widely approved. A great city isn't really personalized; that's Jacobs' central point. It exposes its inhabitants to people, ways of life, activities, culture, and ideas that they would not have chosen on their own -- and that's part of their greatness. Jacobs' work is itself like a great city, teeming with life and ideas -- even a kind of joy -- and its applications go well beyond her particular subject matter.