The Rockefeller Foundation will announce today the creation of a $200,000 award, called the Jane Jacobs Medal, to recognize individuals who have made a significant contribution to thinking about urban design, specifically in New York City. The medal will be given annually to two people: one who has made a lifetime contribution and another who is at the start of a promising career.
Jacobs was herself a young unknown in 1958 when she received a $10,000 grant from the foundation to write what would become "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Published in 1961, the book, which described the intricate network of relationships in neighborhoods like Greenwich Village and deplored the "urban renewal" projects of the 1950s, has continued to influence thinking about how cities work through the present.
"Jane Jacobs's way of seeing things has really held sway over the last 20 years," the New Yorker architecture critic and New School professor, Paul Goldberger, who is on the jury for the medal, said. "And that's all to the good."
Nominations for the awards can be submitted via the Rockefeller Foundation Web site until March 2. The recipients of the award will be announced in June, and an award ceremony will take place in September, simultaneously with the opening of an exhibit on Jacobs at the Municipal Art Society.
It is both coincidental and appropriate that Jacobs should be honored with an award in her name and an exhibit, just when her longtime nemesis, Robert Moses, is having something of a rehabilitation — or, at least, attracting a flurry of renewed interest — with a three-part exhibit devoted to his influence now open around town. Jacobs fought against many of Moses's projects and was instrumental in defeating his plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Through the years she bested Moses in public image and the long-term impact of her ideas.
The decision to create the award came as the result of some institutional soul-searching, the foundation's president, Judith Rodin, said. "We began a strategic planning process and were asking ourselves: What are the 21st Century challenges and opportunities?" Ms. Rodin said. "To do that in a really grounded way, I thought we needed to not only look forward, we also needed to look backward and see where our work has had the most impact."
Among the discoveries of her and her staff was the enormous contribution the foundation made in the 1950s to the emerging field of urban theory and design. After Jacobs's death last year, it seemed a perfect moment to create an award to honor a new generation of visionaries who are contributing to the life of New York.
"There are lots of awards for great architecture, and not a parallel number of awards for great urbanism," Ms. Rodin said. "We want to reflect that great architecture occurs in a broader context."
David Rockefeller Jr., who is a trustee of the foundation, said he was pleased to see the foundation, which is largely known for its activities around the globe, focus once again on New York. "The foundation has had recently a big impact in the effort to rebuild and replan New Orleans, and it's very much in that spirit that they're focusing on their home city of New York," he said.
Jacobs's letters from 1958 to a Rockefeller Foundation program officer, Chadbourne Gilpatric, show her clearly focused on the project she hoped to pursue with the grant money, if a little bit optimistic about how quickly she could complete it. She planned to finish the book in eight months, with three months of research and five of writing. "If this time schedule seems tight for the job to be done, I do not think that is a disadvantage," she wrote, "I have learned that I do my best work when I am under pressure that I have to do my utmost to meet." Like many writers, she was inspired by her deadline but didn't quite meet it: The next year, the foundation gave her $8,000 to fund an additional seven months of work.
Among those who recommended that the foundation support Jacobs was the reigning great man of urban thought, Lewis Mumford. "I first came across her at a conference a few years ago," he wrote to the foundation. "She there made a brief address so pointed and challenging and witty, so merciless to the accepted clichés and so packed with fresh ideas that I felt like cheering."
The creation of the Jane Jacobs Medal comes at a time of enormous development and construction in New York City, about which Jacobs was ambivalent. "She was saddened by much of what had happened in New York, but pleased that a lot of what she was trying to do had taken root," Mr. Goldberger said. "The Lower Manhattan Expressway, thank goodness, never happened, and most of Greenwich Village is preserved as a historic district."
She regretted the construction of more and bigger buildings, and the enormous power held by the real estate industry, Mr. Goldberger said. "But she was also a realist," he said. "She was not Utopian, and I think that was the thing that distinguished her from many other intellectual and urban thinkers. She believed that the world we had was actually pretty good, if only we would learn to understand it, appreciate it, and handle it right."