Book Review: the Death and Life of Great American Cities

Today’s review is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs. This is a book I never would have read without my blogging habit. When she died last year, several of my favourite bloggers wrote about her.

The book is an indictment of pretty much everything about American cities (particularly New York) in the late 50s and early 60s, with a special rant on the side about the Garden City movement and Le Corboisieur.

I imagine that at the time, when she was railing against the received town planning wisdom, it would have seemed an iconoclastic, controversial, somewhat anarchic book. Now, when much (but not all) of what she said has become, in its turn, received wisdom, it didn’t have the same shock value. So given everything I had read about Jacobs from the obituaries, I expected to agree with much of the book.

But, probably because it was written nearly 50 years ago, and from an unapologetically US perspective, it seemed surprisingly old fashioned and narrow. I read it while staying in Rome – not a perfect city, by any means, but probably closer to the ideal city Jane Jacobs had in mind when writing the book than anything that has existed then or now in the US. Yet, except for a description of 19th century London, she doesn’t really mention any non US cities.

Her major theses were that for a city to work:

  • A street or district must serve several primary functions.
  • Blocks must be short.
  • Buildings must vary in age, condition, use and rentals.
  • Population must be dense

A this point I found myself wondering whether Jacobs thought that all suburbs (without adequate population density) were failed aspects of cities; I grew up in a suburb, and while it wasn’t that exciting, it worked perfectly adequately as a place to live.  But suburbs without amenities work less well for poorer people with little capacity to escape them; my suburb had adequate (not great) public transport, and pretty much everyone had a car.

But when I stopped taking issue with the detail, and thought about her argument as a whole, the thesis hit home for me. Just an example of an important point –  her description of how important diversity of time use is, in any street or neighbourhood, for many reasons. Diversity of time use means that the neighbourhood is used all the time by different people. The neighbourhood I stayed in Rome was a classic example.

First thing in the morning were the fruit and fish markets. Then during the late morning the shoppers came out (it was the fashion district). Then in the afternoon and early evening it was time for the tourists to congregate and eat. And later at night the local Roman youth hung out as a place to rest between night clubs. Diversity of time use means:

  • there are always people around, which makes the streets cleaner and safer
  • economically businesses (such as cafes and restaurants) work better if they have clientele from a bunch of different sources during the day, rather than at defined peak times
  • the district itself becomes a magnet drawing people who don’t live there for the diverse entertainments available

For this reason, Jacobs was scathing about the cultural precincts that many second tier cities build to prove their cultural credentials – which are only in use while a show is on, and hence become quite unsafe deserts for much of the day – the South Bank Centre in London was a good example when I lived there (even if London has never been a second tier city!).

Anyone with even a passing interest in town planning should read this book. It is polemic, for its time, and should be read with that in mind, but there are nuggets of truth in every chapter, which must be part of the thinking of anyone with any responsibility for planning in a modern city.

In the end, the great insight is that the diversity and sometimes anarchy that characterises all great cities is what makes them great; diversity shouldn’t be tidied away with zoning regulations without very careful consideration of the consequences, but should be emphatically encouraged.

  4 comments for “Book Review: the Death and Life of Great American Cities

  1. David
    October 29, 2009 at 8:43 pm

    You mark that Jane Jacobs must think that according to Jane Jacobs’ theses a suburb would never be succesful. But in the first part of the book already she makes the remark that her theses should not be applied to anything but great cities. I don’t think suburbs apply.

    Nice review!

    • October 30, 2009 at 8:49 pm

      Thanks for the comment – a fair point about the suburbs. Good excuse to reread the book!

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