The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

by Jane Jacobs


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A direct and fundamentally optimistic indictment of the short-sightedness and intellectual arrogance that has characterized much of urban planning in this century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities has, since its first publication in 1961, become the standard against which all endeavors in that field are measured. In prose of outstanding immediacy, Jane Jacobs writes about what makes streets safe or unsafe; about what constitutes a neighborhood, and what function it serves within the larger organism of the city; about why some neighborhoods remain impoverished while others regenerate themselves. She writes about the salutary role of funeral parlors and tenement windows, the dangers of too much development money and too little diversity. Compassionate, bracingly indignant, and always keenly detailed, Jane Jacobs's monumental work provides an essential framework for assessing the vitality of all cities.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780679741954
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 12/28/1992
Edition description: Reissue
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 81,940
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Jane Jacobs was the legendary author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a work that has never gone out of print and that has transformed the disciplines of urban planning and city architecture. Her other major works include The Economy of Cities, Systems of Survival, The Nature of Economies and Dark Age Ahead. She died in 2006.

Read an Excerpt

Foreword to the Modern Library Edition

When I began work on this book in 1958, I expected merely to describe the civilizing and enjoyable services that good city street life casually provides-and to deplore planning fads and architectural fashions that were expunging these necessities and charms instead of helping to strengthen them. Some of Part One of this book: that's all I intended.

But learning and thinking about city streets and the trickiness of city parks launched me into an unexpected treasure hunt. I quickly found that the valuables in plain sight-streets and parks-were intimately mingled with clues and keys to other peculiarities of cities. Thus one discovery led to another, then another—.Some of the findings from the hunt fill the rest of this book. Others, as they turned up, have gone into four further books. Obviously, this book exerted an influence on me, and lured me into my subsequent life's work. But has it been influential otherwise? My own appraisal is yes and no.

Some people prefer doing their workaday errands on foot, or feel they would like to if they lived in a place where they could. Other people prefer hopping into the car to do errands, or would like to if they had a car. In the old days, before automobiles, some people liked ordering up carriages or sedan chairs and many wished they could. But as we know from novels, biographies, and legends, some people whose social positions required them to ride-except for rural rambles-wistfully peered out at passing street scenes and longed to participate in their camaraderie, bustle, and promises of surprise and adventure.

In a kind of shorthand, we can speak of foot people and car people. This book was instantly understood by foot people, both actual and wishful. They recognized that what it said jibed with their own enjoyment, concerns, and experiences, which is hardly surprising, since much of the book's information came from observing and listening to foot people. They were collaborators in the research. Then, reciprocally, the book collaborated with foot people by giving legitimacy to what they already knew for themselves. Experts of the time did not respect what foot people knew and valued. They were deemed old-fashioned and selfish-troublesome sand in the wheels of progress. It is not easy for uncredentialed people to stand up to the credentialed, even when the so-called expertise is grounded in ignorance and folly. This book turned out to be helpful ammunition against such experts. But it is less accurate to call this effect "influence" than to see it as corroboration and collaboration. Conversely, the book neither collaborated with car people nor had an influence on them. It still does not, as far as I can see.

The case of students of city planning and architecture is similarly mixed, but with special oddities. At the time of the book's publication, no matter whether the students were foot or car people by experience and temperament, they were being rigorously trained as anti-city and anti-street designers and planners: trained as if they were fanatic car people and so was everybody else. Their teachers had been trained or indoctrinated that way too. So in effect, the whole establishment concerned with the physical form of cities (including bankers, developers, and politicians who had assimilated the planning and architectural visions and theories) acted as gatekeepers protecting forms and visions inimical to city life. However, among architectural students especially, and to some extent among planning students, there were foot people. To them, the book made sense. Their teachers (though not all) tended to consider it trash or "bitter, coffee-house rambling" as one planner put it. Yet the book, curiously enough, found its way onto required or optional reading lists-sometimes, I suspect, to arm students with awareness of the benighted ideas they would be up against as practitioners. Indeed, one university teacher told me just that. But for foot people among students, the book was subversive. Of course their subversion was by no means all my doing. Other authors and researchers-notably William H. Whyte-were also exposing the unworkability and joylessness of anti-city visions. In London, editors and writers of The Architectural Review were already up to the same thing in the mid-1950s.

Nowadays, many architects, and some among the younger generation of planners, have excellent ideas-beautiful, ingenious ideas-for strengthening city life. They also have the skills to carry out their plans. These people are a far cry from the ruthless, heedless city manipulators I have castigated.

But here we come to something sad. Although the numbers of arrogant old gatekeepers have dwindled with time, the gates themselves are another matter. Anti-city planning remains amazingly sturdy in American cities. It is still embodied in thousands of regulations, bylaws, and codes, also in bureaucratic timidities owing to accepted practices, and in unexamined public attitudes hardened by time. Thus, one may be sure that there have been enormous and dedicated efforts in the face of these obstacles wherever one sees stretches of old city buildings that have been usefully recycled for new and different purposes; wherever sidewalks have been widened and vehicular roadways narrowed precisely where they should be-on streets in which pedestrian traffic is bustling and plentiful; wherever downtowns are not deserted after their offices close; wherever new, fine-grained mixtures of street uses have been fostered successfully; wherever new buildings have been sensitively inserted among old ones to knit up holes and tatters in a city neighborhood so that the mending is all but invisible. Some foreign cities have become pretty good at these feats. But to try to accomplish such sensible things in America is a daunting ordeal at best, and often enough heartbreaking.

In Chapter Twenty of this book I proposed that the ground levels of self-isolating projects within cities could be radically erased and reconstituted with two objects in view: linking the projects into the normal city by fitting them out with plentiful, new, connecting streets; and converting the projects themselves into urban places at the same time, by adding diverse new facilities along those added streets. The catch here, of course, is that new commercial facilities would need to work out economically, as a measure of their genuine and not fake usefulness.

It is disappointing that this sort of radical replanning has not been tried-as far as I know-in the more than thirty years since this book was published. To be sure, with every decade that passes, the task of carrying out the proposal would seem to be more difficult. That is because anti-city projects, especially massive public housing projects, tend to cause their city surroundings to deteriorate, so that as time passes, less and less healthy adjoining city is available to tie into.

Even so, good opportunities still exist for converting city projects into city. Easy ones ought to be tried first on the premise that this is a learning challenge, and it is good policy for all learning to start with easy cases and work up to more difficult ones. The time is coming when we will sorely need to apply this learning to suburban sprawls since it is unlikely we can continue extending them without limit. The costs in energy waste, infrastructure waste, and land waste are too high. Yet if already existing sprawls are intensified, in favor of thriftier use of resources, we need to have learned how to make the intensifications and linkages attractive, enjoyable, safe, and sustainable-for foot people as well as car people.

Occasionally this book has been credited with having helped halt urban-renewal and slum-clearance programs. I would be delighted to take credit if this were true. It isn't. Urban renewal and slum clearance succumbed to their own failures and fiascos, after continuing with their extravagant outrages for many years after this book was published. Even now they pop up when wishful thinking and forgetfulness set in, abetted by sufficient cataclysmic money lent to developers and sufficient political hubris and public subsidies. A recent example, for instance, is the grandiose but bankrupt Canary Wharf project set in isolation in what were London's dilapidated docklands and the demolished, modest Isle of Dogs community, beloved by its inhabitants.

To return to the treasure hunt that began with the streets and one thing leading to another and another: at some point along the trail I realized I was engaged in studying the ecology of cities. Offhand, this sounds like taking note that raccoons nourish themselves from city backyard gardens and garbage bags (in my own city they do, sometimes even downtown), that hawks can possibly reduce pigeon populations among skyscrapers, and so on. But by city ecology I mean something different from, yet similar to, natural ecology as students of wilderness address the subject. A natural ecosystem is defined as "composed of physical-chemical-biological processes active within a space-time unit of any magnitude." A city ecosystem is composed of physical-economic-ethical processes active at a given time within a city and its close dependencies. I've made up this definition, by analogy.

The two sorts of ecosystems-one created by nature, the other by human beings-have fundamental principles in common. For instance, both types of ecosystems-assuming they are not barren-require much diversity to sustain themselves. In both cases, the diversity develops organically over time, and the varied components are interdependent in complex ways. The more niches for diversity of life and livelihoods in either kind of ecosystem, the greater its carrying capacity for life. In both types of ecosystems, many small and obscure components-easily overlooked by superficial observation can be vital to the whole, far out of proportion to their own tininess of scale or aggregate quantities. In natural ecosystems, gene pools are fundamental treasures. In city ecosystems, kinds of work are fundamental treasures; furthermore, forms of work not only reproduce themselves in newly created proliferating organizations, they also hybridize, and even mutate into unprecedented kinds of work. And because of their complex interdependencies of components, both kinds of ecosystems are vulnerable and fragile, easily disrupted or destroyed.

If not fatally disrupted, however, they are tough and resilient. And when their processes are working well, ecosystems appear stable. But in a profound sense, the stability is an illusion. As a Greek philosopher, Heraclitus, observed long ago, everything in the natural world is in flux. When we suppose we see static situations, we actually see processes of beginning and processes of ending occurring simultaneously. Nothing is static. It is the same with cities. Thus, to investigate either natural or city ecosystems demands the same kind of thinking. It does not do to focus on "things" and expect them to explain much in themselves. Processes are always of the essence; things have significances as participants in processes, for better or worse.

This way of seeing is fairly young and new, which is perhaps why the hunt for knowledge to understand either natural or city ecology seems so inexhaustible. Little is known; so much yet to know.

We human beings are the only city-building creatures in the world. The hives of social insects are fundamentally different in how they develop, what they do, and their potentialities. Cities are in a sense natural ecosystems too-for us. They are not disposable. Whenever and wherever societies have flourished and prospered rather than stagnated and decayed, creative and workable cities have been at the core of the phenomenon; they have pulled their weight and more. It is the same still. Decaying cities, declining economies, and mounting social troubles travel together. The combination is not coincidental.

It is urgent that human beings understand as much as we can about city ecology-starting at any point in city processes. The humble, vital services performed by grace of good city streets and neighborhoods are probably as good a starting point as any. So I find it heartening that The Modem Library is issuing this beautiful new edition for a new generation of readers who, I hope, will become interested in city ecology, respect its marvels, discover more.

Jane Jacobs
Toronto, Canada October 1992

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities (50th Anniversary Edition) 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 14 reviews.
creating_community More than 1 year ago
Although this book has been around since 1960 it is still an invaluable read. It is an easy read and you will be able to discuss urban planning, sociology, public transportation and a variety of other topics with intelligence and insight after reading her seminal work. You will notice things about the public spaces that we all call home, regardless of your location - rural, sub-urban or urban. Write in the margins and re-read often.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pertainent and wise, as much or more applicable now as it was when written.
jasonli on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is a classic primer on urban planning, specifically geared towards cities in North America. It answers the question why do some areas in cities thrive while others dwindle? Jacobs leaves no stone unturned in her analysis and dedicates a good portion of her book to practical strategies and recommendations. Much of the book is centered around cities in the US, particularly New York City in the 1960s, so those familiar with it are bound to get more out of this book."The Death and Life of Great American Cities" is a must-read for budding urban planners, and a great introduction to the subject. Its one fault, and perhaps it's hard to blame Jacobs writing in the 60s, is that its often too unrelenting (she borders on ranting on occasion), which makes the detail-rich book a bit difficult to read towards the end.
rakerman on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a wonderfully written work of classical science. By this I mean she draws her conclusions based on direct observation, as free from preconceptions as possible. This is absolutely essential for a work analyzing people's cultural interactions as it is first descriptive and then prescriptive. All too often, when dealing with people, we cannot resist utopian urges to prescribe how they should behave, rather than accepting and working with the reality of human interaction in all its richness and complexity.She starts with the most basic element of a city: the sidewalk. What makes a particular area interesting and comfortable for people to be in? Her fundamental concept, difficult to grasp with traditional rigid methods of planning and analysis, is that cities thrive on diversity of people, of buildings, of activities... that the whole engine of a great city is a diverse and interesting street life, full of people circulating around. In clear and compelling descriptions she lays out the characteristics of districts that "work", and compares their success with the failed areas of cities. Time and again, she finds the failed areas are victims of misguided planning, of utopian schemes about vast collections of imposing buildings or projects set within parkland.This reminded me of Toronto's Olympic bid, and of how I think they are fortunate to lose. Grand schemes like that always end in unusable spaces. The Simpson's mocked this in the episode where they visited the empty wasteland of the former St. Louis World's Fair, a bare plaza with scraps of paper blowing across its stark expanse. Just recently in the paper there was an article about the areas built for the Sydney Olympics, now standing empty and underused.It's a mark of her careful approach to analyzing the life of cities that she doesn't get around to looking at that great bugaboo, the car, until her 18th chapter. So many people, myself included, rail against the destruction of cities by cars, but she argues that this is just symptomatic of bad planning in general. Importantly, she argues for a slow and gradual discouragement of car traffic, rather than some grand plan to instantly turn the downtown into a pedestrian area. Again and again she returns to the slowly, "organically" evolving reality of working cities, rather than the lofty architectural abstractions favoured by planners, or the immediate urgencies of roads and parking as seen by highwaymen.
snash on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was an excellent clearly presented analysis of what makes cities work and what doesn't along with practical suggestions to help problem neighborhoods. I don't keep abreast of what is presently being done in city planning but I get the impression that not enough has changed since it was written 50 years ago.
danielmacy on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An important work for those who care about their urban environment. Shortly after her death in 2006, Jacobs' wisdom was challenged as outmoded, and the rise of fake "town centers" have been attributed to her "new urbanism". However, many of her principles are important to consider, even as they were inevitably misapplied by some who undoubtedly had the best of intentions.
bezoar44 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
What an astounding book. Published fifty years ago, in 1961, the Death and Life of Great American Cities challenged planning orthodoxy and the then widespread practice of leveling 'blighted' neighborhoods to replace them with big housing projects. Jacobs, an architectural journalist, is a pragmatic and empirical thinker, and a funny and strong-minded writer. Her book overflows with insights into how streets, neighborhoods, and cities actually function. She argues that planners can and should grow strong communities organically, rather than fighting human nature in a doomed effort to make cities less city-like though brute social and physical engineering. In addition to being a pleasure to read for its cogent exposition, the book is historically illuminating, as many of Jacobs' proposed 'new' strategies have now, two generations later, evolved into widespread policy experiments: New Urbanism, with its focus on the lively streetscape with formal unity but diverse uses; housing advocates' use of the private market to build or rehabilitate affordable units in existing neighborhoods; the founding of socially-conscious credit unions to counteract neighborhood blacklisting by banks and insurance companies. The final chapter of the book articulates, with Jacobs' characteristic verve, the difference between simple systems, disorganized complex systems, and organized complex systems. Jacobs argues that cities, like biological systems, are complex organizations with feedback loops, and she attributes planning orthodoxy's mistakes to its failure to understand this. This insight is a basic watershed between modern and post-modern thought, and she's one of the first thinkers to have crossed it, three decades (!) before the concept of complex, iterative, nonlinear dynamics took off in popular science.
heavywinter on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Seminal work in urban planning. A must read to better understand why our nation's cities and towns are the way they are. Highly recommended.
Andromeda_Yelton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Life-changing. Spirited, witty, incisive, perceptive -- anatomizes the cities around us and what makes them vibrant, or not. Full of examples from places you may well know. Has changed the way I understand the world around me.
nhcoffin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is one of those books every city dweller SHOULD read.
rachelv on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Anyone at all interested in cities and urbanism should read this book. It's fantastic. A surprisingly easy read considering how packed with information it is.
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