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The Death and Life of Great American Cities…

The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)

by Jane Jacobs

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458 p.
  BmoreMetroCouncil | Feb 9, 2017 |
It took me a long time to read this book but at no time did I feel like stopping. It's just that I had to take my time to digest all the important messages Jacobs gave in the book and then think about how they applied today.

In 1961 when Jacobs wrote this book she was living in Greenwich Village in New York City and most of what she decided about cities was learned in her own neighbourhood. She was obviously a keen observer and, just as importantly, a good listener. She saw what worked in neighbourhoods and districts and cities. Her philosophy for good working neighbourhoods centres on diversity. At page 144 she writes "A mixture of uses, if it is to be sufficiently complex to sustain city safety, public contact, and cross-use, needs an enormous diversity of ingredients. So the first question--and I think by far the most important question--is this: How can cities generate enough mixture among uses--enough diversity--throughout enough of their territories to sustain their own civilization?" She goes on to prescribe four conditions for diversity:
1. The district, and its internal parts, must serve more than one primary function and preferably more than two.
2. Most blocks must be short.
3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people for whatever purpose they may be there.

Sounds pretty simple but this was the first time anyone had ever put these four conditions together. And, I would say, more than 50 years later city planners still haven't learned the lessons of this book. I am hopeful that Winnipeg's downtown is finally coming into a status that combines these 4 conditions since there are far more residential uses than even 10 years ago. Also the addition of the MTS Centre in the heart of downtown brings people into the heart of the city at night and on weekends. ( )
  gypsysmom | Apr 13, 2014 |
Written in 1961, this awesome book pretty much explains why the big city projects of the 50's and 60's didn't work, why tearing down grand old buildings and decaying low-density neighborhoods can be equally bad, and how cities work. It sort of predicts how cities have bounced back in the 50 years since Jane Jacobs wrote the book.

Jane Jacobs was responsible, among other things, for preventing New York City from ramming a freeway through Greenwich Village. Thank you, Jane. ( )
  AlexEpstein | May 12, 2013 |
One of the great books about city planning. It got me interested in housing and community development when I first read it in the 1980's. I have been know to quote Jacobs when I am blogging about development. ( )
  Maya47Bob46 | Apr 8, 2013 |
In the early 1960s, as American cities continued their decline into blight, as the suburbs ballooned, and as city planners tried urban renewal methods such as building massive projects and installing huge expressways, one community activist (or perhaps "active community member" would be more apt since activities implies troublemaker and active community members should be viewed as no such thing) believed that these planners, and planning in general, were going about it all wrong. Her name was Jane Jacobs and she decided to put pen to paper, and oh did she ever:

"This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or a hair-splitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding."

That, my friends, is the first paragraph of the book. If you're not already in love with a woman, who had no formal training in urban planning other than what she knew from her own thorough observations, would throw a grenade into the doubtlessly male-dominated world of 1961 urban planning, then I will never be able to make you love Jane Jacobs. But I will at least try to make you interested in her seminal work.

Jacobs views large American cities as unique from the (then even more common) small town life in America. In her view, there were few secrets in small towns because everyone know someone or at least knew someone who knew you, and this knowledge helped to keep actions in the community in check. In contrast, cities are made up of strangers. Lots of strangers. So a different system is needed to drive a safe and economically vibrant community. In Jacob's view, the main driver for both safety and vitality in neighborhoods was streets with lots of foot traffic, at all hours not just certain hours, and lots of eyes (such as stay-at-home parents and business owners) watching them (in the natural course of their days, parents watching children playing, etc). Jacobs envisioned four components, all of which were required, to make a neighborhood thrive:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.
2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.
3. The district must mingle building that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.
4. There must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case of people who are there because of residence.

Jacobs divides the book into four sections, laying first the groundwork regarding how cities operate so that in the second part she can describe in detail each of her four criteria. The remaining parts of the book go into further detail about implementation, with more than one reference to Robert Moses (Jacobs is at least partly responsible for stopping his plan to raze parts of her neighborhood, Greenwich Village, and others such as Soho and Little Italy in order to build a twelve-lane Lower Manhattan Expressway. Moses is profiled in the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro which has been on my long list of books to read and is now due to be upgraded to my short list).

Jacobs knew cities. She watched cities. She loved cities. And she clearly didn't shy away from fighting for what she knew. This book can be viewed as her manifesto on cities and had become a classic for the field. It is highly recommended. ( )
3 vote ty1997 | Jul 12, 2012 |
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» Add other authors (13 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jane Jacobsprimary authorall editionscalculated
Cavalheiro, Maria Estela HeiderTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Epstein, JasonIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paquot, ThierryAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Parin, ClaireTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosa, Carlos S. MendesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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"Until lately the best thing that I was able to think of in favor of civilization, apart from blind acceptance of the order of the universe, was that it made possible the artist, the poet, the philosopher, and the man of science. But I think that is not the greatest thing. Now I believe that the greatest thing is a matter that comes directly home to us all. When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that is makes the means of living more complex; that it calls for great and combined intellectual efforts, instead of simple, uncoordinated ones, in order that the crowd may be fed and clothed and housed and moved from place to place. Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.

"I will add but a word. We are all very near despair. The sheathing that floats us over its waves is compounded of hope, faith in the unexplainable worth and sure issue of effort, and the deep, sub-conscious content which comes from the exercise of our powers."

-Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
To New York City
where I came to seek my fortune
and found it by finding
Bob, Jimmy, Ned and Mary
for whom this is written too
First words
This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women's magazines.
"Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them. By old buildings I mean not museum-piece old buildings, not old buildings in an excellent state of rehabilitation — although these make fine ingredients — but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings, including some rundown old buildings....

Even the enterprises that can support new construction in cities need old construction in their immediate vicinity. Otherwise they are part of a total attraction and total environment that is economically too limited — and therefore functionally too limited to be lively, interesting and convenient. Flourishing diversity anywhere in a city means the mingling of high-yield, middling-yield, low-yield and no-yield enterprises."
As in the pseudoscience of bloodletting, just so in the pseudoscience of city rebuilding and planning, years of learning and a plethora of subtle and complicated dogma have arisen on a foundation of nonsense.
As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge.
This is the most amazing event in the whole sorry tale: that finally people who sincerely wanted to strengthen great cities should adopt recipes frankly devised for undermining their economies and killing them.
the public peace . . . is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves.
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The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1963)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 067974195X, Paperback)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:21 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities was described by The New York Times as "perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning. ... [It] can also be seen in a much larger context. It is first of all a work of literature; the descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet and the bitingly satiric account of traditional planning theory can still be read for pleasure even by those who long ago absorbed and appropriated the book's arguments." Jane Jacobs, an editor and writer on architecture in New York City in the early sixties, argued that urban diversity and vitality were being destroyed by powerful architects and city planners. Rigorous, sane, and delightfully epigrammatic, Jane Jacobs's tour de force is a blueprint for the humanistic management of cities. It remains sensible, knowledgeable, readable, and indispensable. --- Book Description.… (more)

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