Genius of Common Sense:

Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

New York Times Notable Book 2009
Smithsonian Notable Book 2009
Boston Authors Club Highly Recommended Book
Kirkus Reviews Best Young Adult Book 2009

Three books, all written by women in the early 1960s, changed the way we looked at the world and ourselves: Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, and Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities. All three books created revolutions in their respective spheres of influence, and nothing affected city planning and architecture—or the way we think about how life is lived in densely packed urban centers—more than Jane Jacobs’s far-sighted polemic. This was an era when the “urban renewal” movement and its bulldozers were most aggressive, and Jacobs correctly perceived that the new structures that were being built to replace the aging housing of our older cities were often far worse, in both their impact on society and their architectural sterility, than what urban planners identified as “the problem.” She was ridiculed and pilloried by the establishment, but her ideas quickly took hold, and no one ever looked at what made for livable and viable neighborhoods the same way again.

Jane Jacobs, a heroine of common sense, never attended college, but her observations, determination, and independent spirit led her to far different conclusions than those of the academics who surrounded her. Illustrated with almost a hundred images, including a great number of photos never before published (with many by Robert Otter), this story of a remarkable woman will introduce her ideas and her life to readers, many of whom have lived in neighborhoods that were saved by her insights.

This book, originally written for young people, has been hailed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic Robert Campbell as “the best short introduction yet to the life and work of one of the most influential Americans of her generation” for adults too, and renowned men of letters Jason Epstein and Robert Caro agreed. A good read for anyone interested in Jane Jacobs and a useful text for college classes, Genius of Common Sense will inspire readers of all ages and demonstrate that we learn vital life lessons from observing and thinking, and not just accepting what passes as “conventional wisdom.”

Now available as an eBook through Google Play.

Written by two Boston women who are also illustrators, Genius of Common Sense is a readable and well-researched biography that succeeds in capturing Jacobs and her world, not only in words but in drawings and period photos. It’s promoted as a “book for young readers,” which it certainly is, but it’s better than that. It’s the best short introduction yet to the life and work of one of the most influential Americans of her generation.

Robert Campbell, The Boston Globe

No stodgy history texts, Claudette Colvin and Genius of Common Sense throb with their heroines’ passionate struggles. They are handsome books, loaded with primary sources like photographs and contemporary news accounts that bring alive these stories for any teenager wondering how she can make a difference in the world.
Ruth Coniff, The New York Times, May 10, 2009

The theories of Jane Jacobs … should be in the curriculums of grades 7 and 8, her books should be must-reads in all high schools, and her ideas should be discussed in all colleges and universities. Genius of Common Sense is not only a refreshing concept but also a delightful read … a little gem of a book.
Bernard Poulin, Toronto Globe and Mail

In my quest to understand the life, work and impact of Jane Jacobs, I have read almost every book, by or about Jane. One book that I had put off reading was Genius of Common Sense. It wasn’t a priority for me, as the book is targeted to young readers and I thought it would be too basic given my knowledge of Jane and her writings. Big mistake! Genius of Common Sense is a must-read for anybody interested in the life and work of Jane Jacobs. While indeed meant for young adults, the clear and concise writing provides a great introduction to the queen of urbanism. It’s a quick and easy—but nonetheless compelling—read.
Yuri Artibise, Activist and organizer of Jane’s Walk Phoenix

Genius of Common Sense is an inspiring look at one of the great heroines of New York.
Robert Caro, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Power Broker

Jane Jacobs taught the world to see the true value of cities because she had the courage to trust her own experience and common sense. This is an inspiring story, deeply researched and beautifully told.
Robert Fishman, Professor of Architecture and Planning, University of Michigan

This book is the cat’s pajamas. It’s the clearest account anywhere of who Jane was, what she did for cities, and how she did it.
Max Allen, Producer of CBC Radio’s Ideas program and editor of Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs

This book [is] terrific, and I know a few graduate students who will benefit immediately. I’m ordering copies …
Sudhir Venkatesh, Professor of Sociology, Columbia University

This is not just for children – this is a serious book!
Mohsen Mostafavi, Dean of Graduate School of Design, Harvard University

This well-paced, seamlessly co-authored narrative introduces young adult readers to a little known person of great importance, whose visionary ideas changed the way we look at neighborhoods and value city life. The writers’ black and white illustrations combined with vintage photographs, maps, and memorabilia give a vivid account of Jane Jacobs that will encourage young people to make observations and think critically.
Susan Goldman Rubin, Prize-winning author of more than thirty young-adult biographies

An absorbing story of a woman of genius, leadership, courage and imagination who changed the thinking of the world. Though written for younger readers, older ones also will enjoy reading about this remarkable person whose intellect and battles made American cities more civilized and humane places to live. Her impact was enormous and endures.
Nicholas von Hoffman, former columnist for The Washington Post and commentator for 60 Minutes

There is much in the delightful book by Lang and Wunsch…Jacobs’s exemplary life story is well enough told by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch to engage young readers and interest their elders as well.
Jason EpsteinThe New York Review of Books

Barack Obama’s thoughts on Jane Jacobs’ Death & Life of Great American Cities
For Teachers, Educators, and Parents:
We are delighted to offer—free of charge—a PDF of the Urban Naturalist Study Guide, prepared by the American Planning Association to accompany Genius of Common Sense. It presents thoughtful questions and activities so that students can read Genius and observe their own communities through writing and sketching in this workbook-style booklet.

Glenna Lang’s previous work includes illustrations for four classic poems for children with Godine. She wrote and illustrated the award-winning Looking Out for Sarah. Although she grew up in New York City, she lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and teaches at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Marjory Wunsch has illustrated and written numerous children’s books. While studying architecture, she encountered problems of urban design, rehabilitation of old buildings, and the ideas of Jane Jacobs. Marjory and her husband live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.