Written in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs is a seminal work in urban planning. The work is a condemnation of orthodox planning, especially that based in the work of Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier. These ideas, Jacobs argues, are paternalistic and controlling, and lack any understanding of real cities. She also defines a new paradigm for urban planning, based in people and the complex truth of cities, which she sees as a “problem of organized complexity.” Throughout the work, she argues that solving the problems of urban life requires a more in depth understanding of the interactions of people and the built environment on every scale.

Death and Life includes a number of specific criticisms of the planning environment of the mid-20th century, starting from one of the significant trends of the time. The clearance of supposedly blighted slums in favor of planned projects is one of the first things mentioned in the introduction, and Jacobs makes her displeasure clear throughout. When such clearances occur, they uproot the residents and dissolve whatever bonds existed. This worsens the “key link in the perpetual slum… too many people move out of it too fast,” rather than helping true unslumming, which comes from within and starts when people have reason to stay in their neighborhoods. Many so-called slums already under this process are still at risk from single-minded planners. When these planners get their way, new projects end up contributing to a new kind of blight, the “Great Blight of Dullness.”

This blight is clearly Jacobs’ greatest issue with modern planning. Dullness isn’t just in projects; it’s in Central Business Districts (CBDs), which empty out entirely at the end of the business day, or in tracts of homes with no other appeal. Even parks can create dullness when not well placed, acting as barriers rather than improvements. She rails against this “sameness,” which gives residents no reason to move around and explore their city. This loss of movement leads to any number of issues, such as the loss of safety when eyes leave the street and growing congestion when cars become the main mode of travel.

Cars are generally troublesome for Jacobs. Although she recognizes the need to replace horse carts, she takes exception to the excess of personal vehicles: “replacing… each horse on crowded city streets with half a dozen or so mechanized vehicles.” She emphasizes that trucks accomplish the most, and they should be prioritized, while other automobiles are left at home. She notes that efforts to improve driving conditions will never improve things for long, instead creating a vicious circle as more space leads to more cars, and further erodes the city. Rather, she promotes the “attrition of automobiles,” wherein making it a little harder to drive and a little easier to walk or take transit will move people out of their cars.

Battling the “Blight of Dullness,” Jacobs’ key theme is diversity, in a series of theories all built on observations of real life, in real cities. She believes that diversity is key at all scales, from the street to the district to the city as a whole. Each level needs a web of connection and variance to promote people moving through them, but diversity is more complicated than that.

Jacobs’ defines two kinds of diversity: primary, or the reason that people come to an area, and secondary, the uses that support primary diversity. Primary diversity might look like a business district with concert halls to draw people when the businesses are empty, while secondary diversity would include the restaurants and shops that serve workers and visitors throughout the day.

In the self-described “most important point this book has to make,” Jacobs’ lays out four conditions that must be met for diversity to form, which I’ll summarize here:

  1. The district must serve more than one primary function, to ensure different people on different schedules throughout the day.
  2. Blocks must be short, to allow the fluid motion of people throughout all parts of a district.
  3. Varied ages of buildings, including many old ones. Older buildings have a lower overhead, and help support new uses, while new ones are in better shape and can support existing, heavier uses.
  4. Dense concentration of people, both residents and visitors, to create variance in demand for all sorts of uses.

All four of these must be present at all levels for a healthy city, but the key scale is that of the district, the cohesive area large enough to act as a political power within the city. Even then, it is possible for districts to lose their diversity. Too much of a good thing can kill a district, such as when successful shopping destinations overwhelm the secondary diversity around them, and become a district of unsupported shops.

Death and Life also emphasizes the importance of sidewalks. The continuous use of sidewalks by different people – brought by diversity – creates safety, while forming social webs and informal organization. Wide sidewalks create organic gathering places, more useful and meaningful than the planned meeting rooms in projects, and give children a place for unstructured play and learning.

In the final section of Death and Life, Jacobs supplies her own suggestions for how to improve cities. These include carefully considered programs of subsidized private housing through regularly changing systems to prevent stagnation and guarantee the most benefit. She also discusses the importance of broad visual design, to clarify existing order and help locate oneself in the city. Her suggestion to save projects is simple: elevator attendants, hired from among the residents, which will become public figures and promote the social networks usually created in sidewalks. Finally, she suggests a horizontal restructuring of city government to create clear divisions based in real districts, allowing officials an in-depth understanding of the area that they oversee.

Jacobs’ clear distaste for planned utopias may seem an odd choice for a blog about utopias. Ultimately this blog is about the successes and failures of these communities, how they define new ideas and frameworks for urban life. But it’s the organic cities that Jane Jacobs champions that have established real success. However, these cities need to do better, as the climate changes and technology shifts how we live.

Jacobs’ ideas aren’t simple. There’s no recipe for the perfect city here, only suggestions, improvements, and principles. These are the ideas for real cities, and it’s these sorts of ideas that are necessary to make the places we live the best they can be.

One thought on “Hiatus: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

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