Jane Jacobs Death and life of great American cities Review .pdf
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Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York: Vintage Books 1961).
The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, is a unique work of
literature on urban planning in the United States. Written in 1961, the book documents Jacobs’
criticisms of the 1950’s urban planning strategies. Potential readers should know that although
the book has gained widespread popularity in the planning community, Jacobs’ ideas sprang
mostly from her keen observations of her residential area, the Greenwich Village in New York
City(NYC). In her work, Jacobs provides a compelling attack to the conventional planning
practices and an account of new city planning principles.
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written at a time when planners held
conventional ideas such as public parks equal good urban planning. Meanwhile, city diversity,
community engagement, and city vitality were not the top priority of urban planners in the
1960’s (Project for Public Spaces 2010). However, the introduction of Jacobs’ writing pushed
the planning community to consider the neighborhood needs and community engagement in
urban planning. On that note, Ed McMahon, a senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute,
noted that planners today listen more to the community’s needs than they did in the past (Polsky
2016). Jacobs’s book might not be the sole reason to the inclusion of community engagement in
urban planning, but she had a great impact in making community engagement a popular
discussion among the planners.
The ideas presented by Jacobs are of relevance even today. Recently, the list prepared by
Planetizen, an urban planning related news website, titled “10 Ways to Making a Great City
Plan” discussed the importance of prioritizing the city needs. Another point in the
aforementioned article is that planning should engage the community (Toderian 2015).
Interestingly, Jacobs wrote about planning for the city’s needs and engaging the community
extensively in her book five decades earlier. The intersection of the ideas proposed by Jacobs in
1961 and the urban planning community today reflects the wider relevance of Jacobs’ book.
Jacobs succeeds in her writing by providing a compelling perspective on American cities
and the importance of correct identification of the urban planning problems. For example, in
Chapter 12, Jacobs contends that the increase in diversity will not increase traffic. Traffic is not
created by people, but by vehicles. Likewise, in chapter 18, Jacobs notes that planners have
mistakenly categorized the problem as being limited to cars versus pedestrians. Similarly, Jacobs
noted that urban planning has focused on curing the symptoms of the urban planning problems
instead of tackling the primary causes. The easily observable urban planning practices today such
as—the overemphasis on solving traffic to resolve the city’s problems, public housing programs
to solve the urban problems—suggest that Jacobs’ ideas are still invaluable knowledge to the
Jacobs’ book is divided into four sections, nature of cities, conditions for city diversity,
forces of decline and regeneration, and different tactics. One of the key arguments Jacobs makes
is that physical infrastructures and financial resources alone cannot create a diverse, safe, and a
lively neighborhood. For example, in Chapter 2, Jacobs notes that city lights are not sufficient to
make a city safe. Likewise, in Chapter 3, Jacobs cites the insufficiency of public space parks to
make a neighborhood safe. In addition, Jacobs notes the inability of capital flow to solve city
planning issues. In all, Jacobs is opposed to the emphasis on physical infrastructures and a
checklist approach to urban planning.
Another argument in Jacobs’ book is the lack of understanding of the why among urban
planners. In her book, Jacobs criticizes planners’ inability to understand why certain principles
and components of a city such as mixed use are important. Jacobs’ writing is not limited to the
criticisms of what planners do not understand in that she also answers the why question of urban
planning in her book. For example, Jacobs dedicates five chapters (Chapter 7-11) to discuss
mixed use and why mixed use is essential. An impressive aspect of Jacobs’ writing is that she
answers the how question of city planning too. Jacobs reveals some of the ways to achieve mixed
use (shorter blocks, aged buildings, and concentration) to the readers. Meanwhile, Jacobs
connects the role of mixed use to city safety and diversity too, making city vitality and diversity
key takeaways of the book.
Jacobs’ book is an excellent read for planners who practice in the USA; her examples of
Greenwich Village, Boston Area, and Washington are likely to help America-based planners.
However, as an international reader, I sometimes doubt the extent to which Jacobs’ urban
planning strategies are relevant in other parts of the world, particularly the Global South. Cities
in the Global South face problems of rapid growth, poverty, informality, and poor access to basic
sanitation, and these problems differ from those of the USA. Therefore, to say that Jacobs had a
significant global influence in urban planning would be an overstatement.
Some limitations of the book are that the economic aspects of city planning are
introduced only towards the latter half of the book. My major reservation is that the book does
not explain the economic rationale of Jacobs’ urban planning strategies. For example, in Chapter
8, Jacobs assumes that a city is capable of building a public branch library and an admission-free
aquarium. The problem was that, I found asking myself “Who will pay for these structures?”
Jacobs could have made the book more realistic by including the economic rationale of her ideas
as she made the suggestions.
As promised in the book’s introduction, the writing is filled with attacks on the orthodox
planning practices and insights into new planning practices. Unlike the technical writings on
urban design that tend to confuse an average reader, Jacobs’ book is an easy read. The book
offers a fresh perspective to students and professionals, and Jacobs will reinforce the basics of
urban planning to those who get confused with the complexity of urban planning. Overall,
Jacobs’ book is insightful and engaging, making it a classic book on urban planning.
Polsky, Sara. “Celebrating Jane Jacobs, The Legacy and Life of a Great American Urbanist.”
Curbed, May 4, 2016. http://www.curbed.com/2016/5/4/11583092/jane-jacobs-legacy
Project for Public Spaces. “Jane Jacobs.” Project for Public Spaces, January 3, 2010.
Toderian, Brent. “10 Ways to Making a Great City Plan,” Planetizen, September 1, 2015.