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An attack on then-current city planning and rebuilding

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs 

3 Dec, 2015


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The Death and Life of Great American Cities is Jane Jacobs’ 1961 polemic on what makes cities work and what makes them fail. She wrote in reaction to the dominant urban planning doctrine, doctrine that she saw as counter productive.

Although Jacobs thanks a long list of people for their assistance in writing this work, from Saul Alinsky to Beda Zwicker, the name Robert Moses” is strangely absent. Curious, since one could argue this book might never have been written without his efforts to shape New York. 


This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. 

Jacobs discusses the origins of the urban planning doctrine then in use in the US, policies apparently rooted in a deep seating loathing of cities. In the process she provides examples in which the reality of vibrant neighbourhoods is rejected by planners because their guiding theory assures them that, reality be damned, conditions must be otherwise. 


The ability to ignore inconvenient evidence is not seen as a positive attribute. 

I will admit I was pleased to rediscover how little she cares for Le Corbusier, the architect who wanted Paris to be torn down and replaced by this:

Part One: The Peculiar Nature of Cities

The Uses of Sidewalks: Safety:

The first of a number of chapters examining sidewalks. Jacobs suggests that busy sidewalks, while by definition likely to be full of strangers, are safer than quiet sidewalks, because quiet = isolation. 


As an obligate pedestrian, I note my experiences line up with Jacobs’ theory. That said, she overlooks a factor that drives me off main routes and into alleys and side roads: I walk much faster than other people (especially groups of people) and unless I avoid people entirely, I end up stuck behind lollygaggers. 

That said, when plainclothes cops arrested someone on Queen St South by running their car onto the sidewalk to block him, grabbing him, tossing him into the back seat and racing off, emergency dispatchers were inundated by a flood of 911 calls from alarmed Queen Street South shop owners (of which I was one). On some isolated burb street, I doubt anyone would have noticed. 

The Uses of Sidewalks: Contact:

By encouraging interaction, sidewalks and the right mix of buildings around them can help foster a sense of community. Similarly, poorly designed sidewalks can erode community. 


One of the things that got my local paper up in arms in the 1990s was the way that Caribbean immigrants living up on the hill on Church Street would venture out onto their porches to talk to each other, which could only mean something nefarious was happening. Probably drugs! I take from this most of the reporters working for the Record live out in the suburbs. And had forgotten the porch-socializing culture of the early twentieth century. 

The Uses of Sidewalks: Assimilating Children:

Jacobs examines the role of the sidewalk community in raising kids. 


I can see how we got from the days when we kids got booted out the door to amuse ourselves pretty much as soon as we could walk, to current norms that demand unrelenting adult supervision. Yet I still find it disorienting when I read stories in which the parents of the future feel even their teenager needs a minder. 

The Uses of Neighbourhood Parks:

Jacobs examines why some parks are popular and safe while others are underused and dangerous. The nature of the city around the park determines the nature of the park. 

The Uses of City Neighbourhoods:

A successful city neighbourhood is a place that keeps sufficiently abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them. An unsuccessful neighbourhood is a place that is overwhelmed by its defects and problems and is progressively more hapless before them.” 

And of course, decisions made by urban planners can make the difference between success and failure. 

Part Two: The Conditions for City Diversity

The Generators of Diversity:

Although cities benefit, even depend on, diversity of use, how effective they are creating it varies wildly. Boston, for example, has done reasonably well; the Bronx and Detroit, not so much. 

The Need for Primary Mixed Uses:

Jacobs makes a case for mixed use rather than giving each neighbourhood its own specific purpose. Among other issues, this would help mitigate rush hours, as commutes might be shorter and business hours more varied. 

The Need for Small Blocks:

Long blocks encourage isolation by making it difficult to move from one street to another. 

The Need for Aged Buildings:

Older buildings offer certain advantages, not least of which is lower rents: people who build new buildings want to recover their investment as soon as possible. 


Kitchener’s core in many ways can be used to illustrate Jacobs’ points. Smack in the center of the downtown is a giant edifice constructed to house a Canada Trust (since merged into Toronto Dominion/Canada Trust). TD/CT has since vacated the building, whose rents are reputed to be stupendous in their ambition. The building is mostly vacant, as far as I can tell. 

Mind you, that could be an example of an entirely different mechanism, one Jacobs didn’t really discuss (probably because in 1961 she had never encountered it): city planning by utter outsiders. Kitchener building projects administered from Toronto tend to do less well than ones administered locally, because people in TO have no idea, no idea at all, that ambitions appropriate for TO are not a great fit for Kitchener. 

Not that Kitchener is not able to fumble all by its little self: allowing the construction of a second shiny shopping mall in downtown Kitchener seems to have resulted in both malls foundering. One was later taken over by an insurance company and the other is a mix of offices and (often vacant) store fronts. Oddly, it is the older mall that retains some of its original function. That seems less to have been a decision that a second mall was a good idea, than a complete disinterest in the well-being of the city core on the part of the city council. 

I wonder: did Jacobs ever comment on Brand’s How Buildings Learn?

Some Myths about Diversity:

Jacobs wrestles with certain misapprehensions about mixed use and related issues. 

Part Three: Forces of Decline and Regeneration

The Self-destruction of Diversity:

How success of a narrowly focused activity can drive out less successful concerns, counter-intuitively undermining the long-term prospects of the neighbourhood. 


And a million inhabitants of the Bay Area breath a sigh of relief that I know too little to draw a parallel between this chapter and certain developments in San Francisco. 

The Curse of Border Vacuums:

How borders between neighbourhoods actively suppress activity, creating corridors of undesirability. 


I am not 100% sure I understand this chapter and I reread it several times. 

Unslumming and slumming:

Slums can be transformed if somehow people can be convinced that their neighbourhood isn’t a prison they must dream of escaping. 

Gradual Money and Cataclysmic Money:

An examination of the financial tools used to fund economic activity in cities. Giant projects are often much less effective than more gradual approaches. 


Jacobs spends a certain amount of time discussing how various neighbourhoods were closed off from conventional sources of loans. thanks to financial institutions writing off some areas and sub-populations as unfit for loans.

Part Four: Different Tactics

Subsidized Dwellings:

Jacobs rejects a purely market driven approach to the problem of housing, then delves into various questions of policy where public housing is concerned. 


No wonder she had to flee to Canada! 

Erosion of Cities or Attrition of Automobiles:

Jacobs takes a nuanced view of the Challenge of the Automobile, thus cruelly denying me the chance to use the phrase Automobiles: Threat or Menace?” 


I cannot help but notice how often Los Angeles comes up as the example of how not to do things. Also, there is a rather striking absence of bicycles in Jacobs’ worldview, which could simply mean while she did walk and did use cars, she didn’t bike and so didn’t think about the problems bicyclists face. 

More likely, she realized, as all reasonable people eventually do, that while cars and pedestrians can coexist, there is no way for cars and bicyclists or pedestrians and bicyclists or indeed, civilization and bicyclists, to coexist. 

[Editor’s note: James, as a devoted pedestrian, has had far too many unpleasant interactions with bicyclists. Spandex hordes, forgive. ]

Visual order: its limitations and possibilities:

Jacobs rejects the sort of repetitive, crafted visual monotony that looks so tidy on blueprints and road maps. 

Salvaging Projects:

How to make right projects that have gone awry. 


Step one seems to be admitting that your glorious scheme has gone wrong because it was wrong-headed in the beginning, not because of the perversity of Those People . That is a step too far for many, for whom admitting mistakes is an insurmountable challenge. 

Governing and Planning Districts:

This could easily have been called On Being the Right Size”: too small and City Hall has no reason to fear the wrath of the voters in a given district. Too large, and the district’s administration will face the same issues sorting out who to listen to as City Hall does. 

The Kind of Problem a City Is:

An analysis of the analytic processes used to think about cities. 

General comments:

Well, this was a pleasant stroll along memory lane. I don’t think I had reread this since I purchased the book in 1992

Running through the book is a consistent misapprehension, that cities exist to serve the needs of the people who actually live in them, as opposed to the needs of the urban planners, most of whom (judging by the outcome of their policies) live in quiet villages far from their interesting little experiments. Once you start actually listening to the victims of urban planning, where will it end? 

Perhaps because I mentioned Stewart Brand above, I find myself wondering what the implications of Jacobs’ models would be for those shiny space colonies that intrigued so many back in the 1970s. I think there’s an amusing story to written playing with Jacobsian ideas in an L5 setting. Amusing, that is, as long as one does not live there. 

I am a little surprised, but only a little, that as far as I can tell no great work of science fiction has ever been inspired by The Death and Life of Great American Cities, even though it is just the sort of bold polemic many SF authors find attractive. Sadly, authors like Pohl and Asimov aside, there are not a lot of urbanophiles working in SF; the cities we encounter are either un-Jacobsian shiny, tidy utopias (often in SPAAACE) or filthy dystopian slums. 

The Death and Life of Great American Cities is available from Vintage.