Death and Life of Great American Cities, The

by Jane Jacobs (1961)


A fascinating and revelatory work on what makes cities great. Apparently this is one of the most influential books in all of city planning and even a layman like myself can see why. What she proposes — 1) Mixed uses to keep streets active throughout day, 2) Short blocks allowing for variation in routes and ultimately more foot traffic, 3) Buildings of various ages and states to allow for a diversity of tenants’ incomes and 4) Increased density — seems incredibly commonsense that you wonder why it was ever a controversy.

Unfortunately you can still see some of the tendencies she railed against: big single-use buildings like civic centers that destroy a neighborhood’s diversity, inexorable road-widening that crowds out sidewalk life, and huge, monotonous new developments that take up entire city blocks, manufacturing the Great Blight of Boredom. It begs the question: if she had identified these problems so elegantly over a half-century ago and the ideas have apparently influenced most everyone in the field, why are people making the same mistakes even today?

To boil it all down to one simple idea, Jacobs is basically saying that what makes cities alive and healthy is to have as much foot traffic as possible throughout the city. And no, not the foot traffic of pedestrian malls, because such places without cars are self-limiting in the types of commerce and industry they can support (e.g., if you have a mile-long walking mall, how do the businesses in the middle receive deliveries? How could a brewery in the middle ship out its product?). She means feet on normally trafficked streets, mingling with cars, but with deference given to feet wherever remotely possible.

People on sidewalks is the basis of everything else positive about city life: safety, because the more people around the less likely anyone is to do something sketchy (and the more likely they will be either verbally or physically discouraged by the surrounding citizens); profit, because more foot traffic obviously means more clients both intentional and accidental; fascination, because people love to be around other people; and innovation, because the more people you have around, and the more variety of use, the more likely you are to attract and incubate innovative industries.

I’ll stop trying to recap because it’s not my forte and I’m undoubtedly butchering Jacobs’s ideology. I’ll leave it mainly there, just adding that it was a little long and repetitive and got somewhat boring in the later chapters when she left the concrete reality of city planning and attempted to discuss administration. Overall I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in city/town planning and everyone living in a big city. Actually it makes me want to move to a city for the first time in my life!

For more info. . .


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