A direct and fundamentally optimistic indictment of the short-sightedness and intellectual arrogance that has characterized much of urban planning in this century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities has, since its first publication in 1961, become the standard against which all endeavors in that field are measured. In prose of outstanding immediacy, Jane Jacobs writes about what makes streets safe or unsafe; about what constitutes a neighborhood, and what function it serves within the larger organism of the city; about why some neighborhoods remain impoverished while others regenerate themselves. She writes about the salutary role of funeral parlors and tenement windows, the dangers of too much development money and too little diversity. Compassionate, bracingly indignant, and always keenly detailed, Jane Jacobs's monumental work provides an essential framework for assessing the vitality of all cities.
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In the early 1960s, as American cities continued their decline into blight, as the suburbs ballooned, and as city planners tried urban renewal methods such as building massive projects and installing huge expressways, one community activist (or perhaps "active community member" would be more apt since activities implies troublemaker and active community members should be viewed as no such thing) believed that these planners, and planning in general, were going about it all wrong. Her name was Jane Jacobs and she decided to put pen to paper, and oh did she ever:"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or a hair-splitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding."That, my friends, is the first paragraph of the book. If you're not already in love with a woman, who had no formal training in urban planning other than what she knew from her own thorough observations, would throw a grenade into the doubtlessly male-dominated world of 1961 urban planning, then I will never be able to make you love Jane Jacobs. But I will at least try to make you interested in her seminal work.Jacobs views large American cities as unique from the (then even more common) small town life in America. In her view, there were few secrets in small towns because everyone know someone or at least knew someone who knew you, and this knowledge helped to keep actions in the community in check. In contrast, cities are made up of strangers. Lots of strangers. So a different system is needed to drive a safe and economically vibrant community. In Jacob's view, the main driver for both safety and vitality in neighborhoods was streets with lots of foot traffic, at all hours not just certain hours, and lots of eyes (such as stay-at-home parents and business owners) watching them (in the natural course of their days, parents watching children playing, etc). Jacobs envisioned four components, all of which were required, to make a neighborhood thrive:1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.3. The district must mingle building that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.Jacobs divides the book into four sections, laying first the groundwork regarding how cities operate so that in the second part she can describe in detail each of her four criteria. The remaining parts of the book go into further detail about implementation, with more than one reference to Robert Moses (Jacobs is at least partly responsible for stopping his plan to raze parts of her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, and others such as Soho and Little Italy in order to build a twelve-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway. Moses is profiled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro which has been on my long list of books to read and is now due to be upgraded to my short list).Jacobs knew cities. She watched cities. She loved cities. And she clearly didn't shy away from fighting for what she knew. This book can be viewed as her manifesto on cities and had become a classic for the field. It is highly recommended.more
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an excellent clearly presented analysis of what makes cities work and what doesn't along with practical suggestions to help problem neighborhoods. I don't keep abreast of what is presently being done in city planning but I get the impression that not enough has changed since it was written 50 years ago.more
Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is a classic primer on urban planning, specifically geared towards cities in North America. It answers the question why do some areas in cities thrive while others dwindle? Jacobs leaves no stone unturned in her analysis and dedicates a good portion of her book to practical strategies and recommendations. Much of the book is centered around cities in the US, particularly New York City in the 1960s, so those familiar with it are bound to get more out of this book."The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is a must-read for budding urban planners, and a great introduction to the subject. Its one fault, and perhaps it's hard to blame Jacobs writing in the 60s, is that its often too unrelenting (she borders on ranting on occasion), which makes the detail-rich book a bit difficult to read towards the end.more
What an astounding book. Published fifty years ago, in 1961, the Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged planning orthodoxy and the then widespread practice of leveling 'blighted' neighborhoods to replace them with big housing projects. Jacobs, an architectural journalist, is a pragmatic and empirical thinker, and a funny and strong-minded writer. Her book overflows with insights into how streets, neighborhoods, and cities actually function. She argues that planners can and should grow strong communities organically, rather than fighting human nature in a doomed effort to make cities less city-like though brute social and physical engineering. In addition to being a pleasure to read for its cogent exposition, the book is historically illuminating, as many of Jacobs' proposed 'new' strategies have now, two generations later, evolved into widespread policy experiments: New Urbanism, with its focus on the lively streetscape with formal unity but diverse uses; housing advocates' use of the private market to build or rehabilitate affordable units in existing neighborhoods; the founding of socially-conscious credit unions to counteract neighborhood blacklisting by banks and insurance companies. The final chapter of the book articulates, with Jacobs' characteristic verve, the difference between simple systems, disorganized complex systems, and organized complex systems. Jacobs argues that cities, like biological systems, are complex organizations with feedback loops, and she attributes planning orthodoxy's mistakes to its failure to understand this. This insight is a basic watershed between modern and post-modern thought, and she's one of the first thinkers to have crossed it, three decades (!) before the concept of complex, iterative, nonlinear dynamics took off in popular science.more
Life-changing. Spirited, witty, incisive, perceptive -- anatomizes the cities around us and what makes them vibrant, or not. Full of examples from places you may well know. Has changed the way I understand the world around me.more
Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a wonderfully written work of classical science. By this I mean she draws her conclusions based on direct observation, as free from preconceptions as possible. This is absolutely essential for a work analyzing people's cultural interactions as it is first descriptive and then prescriptive. All too often, when dealing with people, we cannot resist utopian urges to prescribe how they should behave, rather than accepting and working with the reality of human interaction in all its richness and complexity.She starts with the most basic element of a city: the sidewalk. What makes a particular area interesting and comfortable for people to be in? Her fundamental concept, difficult to grasp with traditional rigid methods of planning and analysis, is that cities thrive on diversity of people, of buildings, of activities... that the whole engine of a great city is a diverse and interesting street life, full of people circulating around. In clear and compelling descriptions she lays out the characteristics of districts that "work", and compares their success with the failed areas of cities. Time and again, she finds the failed areas are victims of misguided planning, of utopian schemes about vast collections of imposing buildings or projects set within parkland.This reminded me of Toronto's Olympic bid, and of how I think they are fortunate to lose. Grand schemes like that always end in unusable spaces. The Simpson's mocked this in the episode where they visited the empty wasteland of the former St. Louis World's Fair, a bare plaza with scraps of paper blowing across its stark expanse. Just recently in the paper there was an article about the areas built for the Sydney Olympics, now standing empty and underused.It's a mark of her careful approach to analyzing the life of cities that she doesn't get around to looking at that great bugaboo, the car, until her 18th chapter. So many people, myself included, rail against the destruction of cities by cars, but she argues that this is just symptomatic of bad planning in general. Importantly, she argues for a slow and gradual discouragement of car traffic, rather than some grand plan to instantly turn the downtown into a pedestrian area. Again and again she returns to the slowly, "organically" evolving reality of working cities, rather than the lofty architectural abstractions favoured by planners, or the immediate urgencies of roads and parking as seen by highwaymen.more
An important work for those who care about their urban environment. Shortly after her death in 2006, Jacobs' wisdom was challenged as outmoded, and the rise of fake "town centers" have been attributed to her "new urbanism". However, many of her principles are important to consider, even as they were inevitably misapplied by some who undoubtedly had the best of intentions.more
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