The Death and Life of Great American Cities

by Jane Jacobs

Cover image

Publisher: Vintage
Copyright: 1961
Printing: December 1992
ISBN: 0-679-74195-X
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 448

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I have a complicated reaction to cities, a reaction that I think is common in the United States. Like many people in my generation (particularly in my social class), I grew up in the suburbs. Cities were something to be near and go to, not to live in. My primary experience with transportation for my entire life has been cars, often on highways, and a primary experience with cities is traffic and difficulty parking. Cities can be impressive and full of fascinating things, but in my unconsidered gut reaction, they also feel dirty, full of too many people, and a bit dangerous.

Jacobs covers a lot of material in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, but one of the successes of this book is how well it introduces the unique dynamics of cities to someone with my background and prejudices. I'm partly an easy target, since I'm intellectually inclined to like cities due to the advantages density has for efficiency and environmental impact, but she also tackles the less conscious and more emotional reactions concisely and effectively. For example, the first bit of analysis in the book directly tackles the problem of sidewalk safety, using it as a springboard into a section about the uses and nature of sidewalks and street life, why they succeed, and why they fail.

The Death and Life of American Cities is primarily about urban planning. It is specifically a reaction to the mistakes of urban renewal and the systematic destruction of potentially healthy cities by those mistakes. But to build a framework for analysis of planning, Jacobs digs into what makes a city work or not work based on analysis of the day-to-day street life and studies of a wide variety of neighborhoods in many American cities, and for me that was the most interesting part. She contrasts those observations with current thought (from the 1950s and 1960s when this was written) about urban planning, shows how much of it is catastrophically wrong, and then in the last part provides specific recommendations for how government actions can help a city regenerate and thrive.

The core assertion underlying this book is that cities are fundamentally different than suburbs, and large cities (the topic matter here) are fundamentally different than small cities. Furthermore, some of our popular conceptions of ideal urban planning (such as division of use and sorting of housing by income) are not only wrong but actively distructive in large cities. Some of those approaches can work in suburbs and small cities, where cars are ubiquitous, density is low, and everyone travels for everything that they need. As the density rises, structures (planning, government, development, and even social attitudes) that work in low-density areas start to break down. Much of the common US negative attitude towards cities is towards that breakdown and the failure of higher-density districts that are still run like suburbs. But Jacobs also shows how at a higher density level than the "grey zone" that she warns against, and with the right combination of other key factors, a true city can form and thrive. Such a city is a different kind of social organization than a suburb, one which plays by different rules and succeeds on different principles.

The most valuable part of this book for me was part two, which lays out and discusses in depth the four factors that Jacobs believes are critical to the healthy development of a city: primary mixed uses, small blocks, a mix of building ages, and concentration. This provides the analytical foundation for the rest of the book. If one buys Jacobs's analysis, and it was quite persuasive for me, the problems with traditional urban planning and many possible remedies follow naturally. The rest of the book is in a sense an elaboration of part two, taking those principles and applying them in practice or studying the reasons why they're not applied.

What makes this book so powerful and so brilliant is the way Jacobs can cut to the heart of problems and wrap an explanation around it that looks obvious in retrospect. For example, consider one of her keys for a successful city: a mix of building ages. It's common, outside of particular historical contexts, to like new buildings. They have the best modern technology, they tend to be more comfortable and convenient, and unless the alternative is old enough to be historic, they tend to be more aesthetically pleasing. However, urban renewal in the form of levelling a section of city and rebuilding with new, "modern" buildings is death for a city for an obvious reason I never thought about: new buildings have to pay off their construction costs via rent. Old buildings have already done so. Rent in new buildings is therefore necessarily higher than that in old buildings. But nearly all new businesses need low rents, because new businesses have small or no initial income and can't afford to help pay construction costs on a brand new building. This form of urban renewal therefore leaves that section of the city without a place for new business to grow, thus starving out an engine of growth and development and choking the local economy.

Another analysis example: at the time Jacobs was writing, housing projects were very much in style, and those projects tended to be income-sorted. In other words, housing would be built specifically for lower-income people, usually partly subsidized. This housing frequently had an income cap (since it was meant to serve low-income residents), so those who became successful had to move out.

Jacobs's simple and cogent point is that successful neighborhoods are ones that win the loyalty of their residents, leading the residents to want to stay and improve the neighborhood rather than move out at the first opportunity to somewhere better. This system works directly against that, by forcing residents who become successful to move away. It also increases turnover while reducing the sense of ownership and attachment that residents have to the neighborhood, which undermines the sense of community policing and responsibility and leads to people considering actions like vandalism to be someone else's problem. The income sorting also tends to lead neighborhoods to become insular, creating an us versus them perception of surrounding parts of the city that reduces cross-traffic and hence sources of diversity. That, in turn, reduces the traffic on the streets, making it hard for retail businesses to thrive and leading to more dangerous streets (since the best way to make streets safe is to fill them with average people who feel some sense of responsibility for public order).

These are just two examples. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is full of analysis like this and principles that ring true and are explained clearly enough to be memorable. It's also full of great stories and bits of history of city districts, both of failures and successes, that show the richness of city life and the way that city districts can spontaneously grow and develop into thriving and attractive centers of life, sometimes in direct defiance of city policies and lending blacklists that are trying to choke them off. It's rare that I've read a non-fiction book this rich with detail and new ideas and simultaneously this readable, fascinating, and approachable.

Besides being a careful student of cities, Jacobs is also a passionate, constructive advocate. She doesn't spend time extolling cities over other arrangements of people, and indeed largely refrains from commenting on non-city structures except where they become failed cities. But her love of cities and the best of city life shines through every page, and by the end of the book she had me wishing I were living in one. This voice in favor of city life is infrequently heard in the United States, and when it is it's often cliched, built around specific types of culture or personal taste. Jacobs's passion for cities is more broad-ranging and extends farther into their social impact within everyday life in neighborhoods than I had read before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who can't imagine anyone ever wanting to live in a city. By the end, you may still not want to, but I think you'll understand better why people do.

The one drawback of this book from my perspective is that it's now nearly fifty years old and I'm not well-read in urban planning or the history of cities. I can recognize some of what Jacobs discusses as things that I don't believe are still happening, and some of her suggestions as policies that I've now seen in practice. But for much of what she discusses, I was left wondering whether it's still happening, whether and to what degree her recommendations were adopted, or how what she describes compares to current city layout and life in the United States. I would have loved a follow-up analysis of the impact of this book and the changes in urban planning in the subsequent fifty years.

I'm not sure what someone from outside the United States (or, I suspect, Canada, where I believe the issues are similar) would make of this book. Europeans, for example, seem to me to have a more comfortable relationship with their cities and a better understanding of the principles that create and shape them. But for anyone in the United States or Canada with any interest in urban planning, city life, or why some cities work and others don't, I recommend this book wholeheartedly. It's a classic in its field, but it's not a dry or lifeless technical analysis. It's a book full of both clear-eyed analysis and constructive emotional engagement, full of contageous enthusiasm and practical suggestions. I suspect you'll find in reading it that you care more about the life of cities than you thought.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-06-09

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21