The Death and Life of Great American Cities Kindle ¿

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


10 thoughts on “The Death and Life of Great American Cities

  1. says:

    This is a common assumption that human beings are charming in small numbers and noxious in large numbers I picked up this book immediately after finishing The Power Broker and I highly recommend this sequence to anyone who has the time The conflict between Robert Moses czar like planner of New York City for almost half a century and Jane Jacobs ordinary citizen and activist has become the source of legend There is a book about it Wrestling with Moses a well made documentary Citizen Jane and an opera A Marvelous Order with a libretto written by a Pulitzer Prize winner I haven’t seen it The two make an excellent hero and villain Moses the autocratic power hungry city planner who eviscerates neighborhoods and bulldozes homes Jacobs the underdog autodidact community organizer defender of Greenwich Village and Washington Square Park The two did not only clash in life—with Jacobs leading protests to stop Moses’s highways—but importantly in thought More diametrically opposed conceptions of the city could hardly be imaginedMoses was at bottom a follower of Le Corbusier a modernist who put forward the idea of the Radiant City The idea was to create a city with all the different functions in separate zones—sections for retail business manufacturing residence—and to create as much green space as possible by putting everything in high rise buildings freeing up land for parks These buildings would be connected not by ordinary roads but by giant superhighways In a way it is a conception of the city that is anti city there would be no streets no corner shops no neighborhoods The impulse was I believe originally progressive to erase differences in class by creating uniform conditions for everyone But in Moses’s hands this philosophy became deeply reactionary isolate the poor people of color in projects and build highways for the car owning middle class Jacobs was absolutely opposed to this model There are innumerable theoretical differences between Jacobs and Moses but I think the most essential difference is this Jacobs loved cities She loved walking around cities chatting with neighbors gazing at street life making small talk at local shops sitting on stoops and leaning out windows And so her idea of urban planning is not to pack everyone into high rise buildings to get them off the street but the reverse to get as many people on the street as possible She loves the messiness of cities A healthy city is not for her a work of art consciously designed It is like a biological organism shaped by natural selection into a well functioning complex interrelated constantly changing whole Healthy cities are not made by planners but by ordinary people Since the publication of this book Jacobs’s ideas have become enormously influential—so influential in fact that it is difficult to see anything radical about what she says One of her basic principles for example is that a well used street is a safe street because the presence of many bystanders discourages crime I suspect that this seems obvious to most people But when you look at the projects that Moses and his ilk built—high rise buildings surrounded by lawns with no shops restaurants or anything else to attract people to street level—you realize how totally out of touch they were Indeed the whole idea of housing projects sounds like a recipe for disaster pack all the poor into one area set income limits so anyone successful has to move out discourage all street activity to eliminate a sense of community And in practice the projects were disasters—centers of delinquency and despair Jacobs’s recipe for creating a healthy neighborhood has four ingredients 1 mixed uses so that different kinds of people are drawn to the area at different times of day for different reasons 2 a mixture of old and new buildings so that there is low rent space available for small businesses and low income residents 3 small blocks so that streets are not isolated from one another and 4 sufficient density of residents to create the necessary amount of economic and social activity The goal is to produce a neighborhood like her own Greenwich Village with lots of street life with successful residents who choose to stay long term with local stores and restaurants and cafes and with a steady influx of immigrants To use a metaphor Jacobs thinks we should try to create an ecosystem with a lot of biodiversity and to do this we need a lot of biomass and a lot of separate niches The essential fact about ecosystems—which also applies to cities—is that they are a delicate balance of different elements deeply complex shaped by the action of countless individual players over countless eons This level of complexity is baffling to the human mind which is why we so often disrupt ecosystems by trying to “improve” them Urban planning does the same thing with cities The Moses approach to continue the metaphor is agricultural rather than natural sweep away the natural environment and create an artificial monoculture Monocultures never spring up in healthy ecosystems Lacking biodiversity they are inherently vulnerable and difficult to maintain We expend enormous amounts of money and energy defending our wheat fields from vermin and disease The same principle applies to the housing projects which need constant police surveillance to remain remotely viable This gives a taste of Jacobs’s guiding idea perhaps but I can hardly do justice to the wealth of thought in this book Jacobs has convincing sociological insights into what makes streets safe or unsafe what makes city economies thrive or stagnate why housing projects fail and slums form why parks are used and unused why city governments are so often inefficient and ineffective and even includes her ideas on the history and progress of science In a way this book is a constant rebuke to academe At the time academic urban planning was entirely stagnant relying on ideas and principles that hadn’t been modified in thirty years and which were never very good to begin with It took someone like Jacobs an autodidact without a college degree to break up the orthodoxy—and she had to endure a lot of sexism and condescension in the process What made her so successful and what has made this book so enduring was a rare combination of talents keen observation a highly original mind the ability to think on multiple scales at once hard nosed practicality and a healthy sense of social responsibility In this book she relies on her wide and somewhat eclectic reading but even on her own eyes and ears She has visited successful and unsuccessful neighborhoods and had talked to their residents She has led protests and was a frequent visitor of City Hall When you read this book it is easy to see why she has become something of a hero for many citizens and academics she is absolutely unafraid of authority either intellectual or political and she had the mental and personal resources to win It is of course ironic that her ideas so heterodox eventually became the new orthodoxy of urban planning When Jacobs passed away in 2006 there were many who called for an end to her intellectual reign The most common criticism I believe is that Jacobs did not anticipate gentrification—the gradual takeover of neighborhoods by the affluent This is the most talked about problem in New York City today There’s a popular blog Vanishing New York which documents all the small business and local establishments being pushed out by big money Jacobs’s own former neighborhood Greenwich Village is a prime example now it is nothing like the bustling bohemian working class place it was in her day I’m not sure if Jacobs can be fairly blamed for this however For one she anticipates how successful neighborhood can become “too successful” and lose their vitality as money pours in What’s she was very concerned with maintaining housing for low income tenants within successful neighborhoods and includes a novel plan to do so in this book In any case this book is not just a recipe for creating neighborhoods In an oblique way it presents an entire ideology Jacobs is a proponent of what you might call progressive decentralism Normally decentralism is associated with the right at least here in the US but Jacobs make a strong case for leftist decentralism Large vertically oriented government structures simply cannot understand or respond to individual citizens’ needs The answer is to empower local government so that citizens can shape their own neighborhoods Government must help the disadvantaged but must do so by cooperating with local forces and private individuals—exploiting economic and social elements that naturally arise instead of imposing its own cumbrous structure This book can be read even broadly as an attack on suburbia and modern isolation Cities are the future as Jacobs reminds us—hotbeds of ideas and centers of population growth and cities are natural products created by the free choice of individuals places that organically foster their own sense of identity and community Suburbia is a rejection of cities artificial products created through the deliberate policies of planners Not shaped by free choice they are not organic communities and even if they escape being unsafe like the projects they foster that constant specter of modern life isolation When you hear Jacobs describe her own neighborhood in Greenwich Village you get a sense of what so many places nowadays lack neighborliness friendliness a group of semi strangers and sidewalk acquaintances who will go out of their way to help each other a sense of communal ownership and belonging In sum this book is a true classic ensconced in an intellectual climate that no longer exists responding to contemporary problems with eloquence and insight and championing a perspective that is still vital