The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

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Every Monday night, I take a detour on my way home and drive through the heart of downtown Austin. It lures me like I imagine an anglerfish entices prey in the deep sea depths; a sinister analogy, but oddly applicable to how I feel when I’m drawn to those bright streets. I vary my route each week, watching business-suited pedestrians and party-goers share the night with cars and motorcycles and glittering buildings. It’s a vibrant nightlife that, come morning, will transform into a vibrant workday. It’s the sort of place you want to drive through slowly (or ideally walk)– becoming a participant.

janejacobsThis diverse and energetic city atmosphere is enthusiastically supported by Jane Jacobs in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Since its publication in 1961, it’s become a classic in urban planning and has exhibited impressive influence up to the present day; influencing city planners across the country and such movements as The New Urbanism. I read most of Jacobs’ book on vacation at the Frio River– about as far from city life as you can get, but even there I was struck by its pertinence. Not only is it searingly applicable to our problems as an increasingly urban nation, but Jacobs has masterfully woven personal experience, opinions and second-hand anecdotes together with hard statistics and history in a way that kept me turning pages and underlining passages even in sections dealing with amortization periods of mortgages, which is normally hard to do.

Jane Jacobs loved cities. She loved cities because she loved people and was endlessly captivated by the life of individuals, especially the ways those lives could be shaped and changed by the lives of other individuals or the places that framed them. I’ve thought a lot about the influence of Place recently, especially since traveling to England last year. What makes a place conducive to human flourishing? That question is a bigger one than Jacobs asks in Cities, since she deals primarily with urban centers rather than suburban or rural life. But in those urban centers, she calls first and foremost for diversity. “Without a strong and inclusive central heart,” she writes, “a city tends to become a collection of interests isolated from one another. It falters at producing something greater, socially, culturally, and economically, than the sum of its separated parts.” Because people are always changing- whether by aging or because of fluctuations of income or interest, monotonous areas become permanent way stations. People want to live in places that reflect their own lives, so what multifaceted person would choose to spend his life in a one-dimensional neighborhood?

Diversity is key to lively cities, but cities do not automatically generate diversity. It forms because of various economic pools of use, which draw different sorts of people, who create smaller elements of diversity in an increasing cycle. That cycle of flourishing is a lofty and complex goal, but Jacobs proposes four necessary conditions for diversity that help break the issue into smaller, more attainable parts. (I highly support reading the book since this brief overview is really inadequate.)

First, districts must serve more than one primary function, to draw people into the area at different times of day. Primary uses are ordinarily places of work or residence, or anything that draws people for its own sake, such as a successful theatre.

Second, most blocks must be short to encourage commerce and “intricate pools of cross-use.” Long streets cut people off from other areas. If a city were a quilt, short streets would be like stitching instead of basting in the fabric of diversity.

Third, buildings must vary in age in order to accommodate businesses of varied means. Aesthetically, a street that mingles old and new buildings looks more diverse, and can attract real diversity by offering accommodation to established businesses and small start-ups simultaneously.

Fourth, the population must be sufficiently dense (density is determined by dwellings per acre, not to be confused with overcrowding which is determined by people per dwelling). In areas where people are spread thin, only businesses supported by the majority can turn a sustainable profit. Only dense areas can meet the demands of the minority. At a lecture on urban design last week, I met a developer who chose the following quote from Jane Jacobs as a motto for his real estate consultant firm: “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Further in her book, Jacobs delves deep into the nature of cities and issues such as the self-destruction of diversity, border vacuums, the role of automobiles, and various tactics to improve the functioning of everything from subsidized housing to city government. Particularly because I’ve experienced European cities and older American ones that were built around the pedestrian or horse and carriage rather than the car, I was fascinated by Jacobs’ diagnosis and prescribed cures for the (in my opinion) inferior urban planning movements after World War II. The sentiment is shared by the authors of Suburban Nation, another book on urban planning I finished recently, as evidenced by the choice of quote here:

city

Since Jacobs published it in 1961, the logic and sentiments behind her work have taken root in many city development departments and produced improvements that I hope would encourage her today. They certainly encourage me. But there’s still a long way to go. When I drive through downtown Austin, I’m thrilled by all the diversity I see in action. But a few miles out, the suburban neighborhoods are populated with bleak business parks and wide highways that speak of an environment built for machines instead of bodies. As ever more Americans (especially millennials) flock to urban centers, it is ever more important that we build them well. At the beginning of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, there’s a note about illustrations that has stuck with me: “The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.”

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One response

  1. I heard about The Death and Life of Great American Cities reading another book. Glad you chose to write about it. Fascinating post!
    – Trent

    November 15, 2015 at 9:39 pm

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