February 18, 2013

Jane Jacobs: The Life and Death of Great American Cities

5th Avenue New York City

In Jane Jacobs’ book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she discusses the particular nature of cities. The introduction focuses on how City Beautiful and the Radiant City differs from how cities truly work and how cities have suffered as a result of these ideals.

Part 1

In part one of her book she discusses city sidewalks at length talking about how safety, contact and how they work to assimilate children. She talks about three specific attributes that a street must have to create safety. A street must have a clear separation between public and private, watchful eyes of storekeepers, residents and those passing by and a sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously. The prerequisite to surveillance is a “substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks.” This gives people a reason for using the sidewalks and also draws people past private places while keeping them well traveled. Storekeepers also help to keep order and peace while their establishments help to attract people and increase the numbers of people on the sidewalks. Lighting is also a very important characteristic of safety, though without effective eyes to see, crimes can occur in even well lighted areas.

The social structure of the sidewalk hinges partly on so called self-appointed public figures. One whom is in frequent contact with a wide circle of people such as storekeepers. They essentially enhance the  social structure by learning news at street level and spreading the information. She argues that this type of trust can not be established in community rooms. Rather, trust can be created with sidewalk contact and safety.

Jane Jacobs, 1962
The third function of the sidewalk is to assimilate children, that is to provide a non-matriarchy environment in which they can play. This section I found the most interesting when she compared the supposed ‘unsafe’ sidewalks with the presumably ‘safe’ parks. She referred to documentary maker Charles Guggenheim and his film investigating a St. Louis day-care where he discovered that roughly half of the children didn’t want to walk home afterwards, while the other half did. Those that left willingly lived in the old ‘slum’ streets whilst those that did not want to leave lived in the projects. Jacobs argued that those that lived in the projects had to deal with bullies while those that lived on the old streets were safe from extortion since those that lived in the projects had to pass by the presumably ‘safe’ parks in which had been removed from the public eye thus rendering them unsafe. Those living in the old streets had the opportunity to circumvent trouble unlike those that walk to the projects. She went on to talk about parks and how parks should posses four characteristics: intricacy, centering, sun, and enclosure. Intricacy is the reason thereby people use parks. Every park should have a center. Every park needs sun and buildings should be built up to the park without any windowless walls.

Part 2

In Part Two, Jacobs discusses that human beings live within a community that is characterized by many layers that seem chaotic and planners like Moses use deductive reasoning to find principles to dictate principles by which to plan cities thereby taking out the human portion of the equation. Urban renewal is the separation of uses like residential, industrial and commercial from each other thereby decreasing diversity of cities. Districts must serve mixed use functions to activate the streets at different times of the day. Blocks must be short to increase pedestrian path options and as a result enhance social and economic development. Buildings should also be of different ages so that they might be able to support businesses and residents of different wealth and also there should be a dense concentration of people to provide eyes on the street.

Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses


Jane Jacobs' book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a fantastic read and a great addition to your library. It is a truly insightful book on the inter-workings of cities.

Additional Information

The City Builder Bookclub - Great insight into each section of the book.

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