Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs is cited in an inordinate number of books I’ve read in the past few years (including Emergence by Steven Johnson) and I’m very interested in the way cities work, so it was natural for me to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961).  In some ways, it is the book that seems to summarize many things that I’ve long felt about why cities are important, what makes them great, and how “city planning” gets it so wrong.  It’s amazing that this book was written almost 50 years ago describing the decay of cities that projects and city planning inflicted, not just because that things had already gone down hill at such an early date but that even with Jacobs’ evocative warning, the ideas of city planning continue to be followed to this day!

I’ll have to say there’s a lot I learned from this book.  Jacobs seems to have a knack for understanding how the sidewalks and a neighborhood work, kind from an anthropological perspective, but almost also from an engineering perspective.  She can take things we take for granted apart and see how they tick.  Jacobs also understands the factors that create diversity from which good cities draw their strength and vitality.  These are, and none of them are optional:

1) mixed primary uses (such as commercial storefronts, residences, and landmarks organically mixed together.

2) small blocks (that break monotony, allow for greater commercial enterprise, and prevent isolation by allowing more people to circulate together)

3) aged buildings (again prevents the monotony of projects all built at once in the same style as well as being incubators for ventures that can afford their low rent.

4) concentration (that is a dense number of people living, working, shopping, and visiting an area with activity of some sort throughout the day.  Density is a good thing for a neighborhood as opposed to overcrowding which is a very bad thing for a building).

Jacobs cites many examples of cities & neighborhoods that work due to the conditions above as well as how city planning theorists have contributed to the destruction of diversity and the decline of cities.  Interestingly, parks – things that even I thought were good – are an example of bad city planning when they are constructed to be a virtue in themselves as opposed to part of a diverse city.  Some of the worst slums in America have plentiful park space, but Jacobs explains that these parks create borders to neighborhoods and become vacuums that are underutilized and dangerous.  On the other hand, Jacobs does not put much blame on the automobile, since the city planning theories she opposes arose at the same time as the automobile and she contends one did not influence the development of the other.  There is a place for cars in cities, but a diverse neighborhood would cause a natural attrition of the great numbers of cars that damage a city and allow a more beneficial balance.

In the later chapters, Jacobs proposes many alternate tactics to how people who love cities can work to create diversity.  These include subsidizing dwellings instead of projects, attrition of automobiles, visual order, and reorganizing city government to create leadership that works together within a district.  I know of no examples in which Jacobs suggestions were tried, but they seem to be good ideas that would be worth trying even today.

The death and life of great American cities / Jane Jacobs ; with a new foreword by the author.
Publisher: New York : Modern Library, 1993.
ISBN: 0679600477
Description: xxiv, 598 p. ; 20 cm.
Edition: Modern Library ed.

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