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Jane Jacobs photographed on the porch of her home in Toronto. May 10, 2004.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Could a debate about urban planning make good opera?

The answer may be yes if the debate's protagonists are urban activist Jane Jacobs and her great adversary, modernist planner Robert Moses.

A group of New York artists is working on an opera telling the story of Jacobs's fight against Moses's utopian schemes to raze Manhattan neighbourhoods. The battles turned Jacobs, a freelance journalist married to an architect, into an activist and formed her thinking about urban issues articulated in her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

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The untitled work-in-progress is a collaboration between Brooklyn new-music composer Judd Greenstein and animator and filmmaker Joshua Frankel, who will design and direct the piece. Tracy K. Smith, a professor of creative writing at Princeton University and a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, will write the libretto.

According to its creators, New York is the central character in the work, which focuses on Jacobs's career prior to her move in 1968 to Toronto, where she also became involved in the campaign to stop the proposed Spadina Expressway.

She died in Toronto in 2006, her ideas vindicated by the rebirth of many North American downtowns. Moses, who could take credit for hundreds of miles of highways, died in West Islip, N.Y., in 1981.

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