Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”

It takes hubris for a civil engineer to review Jane Jacobs’ great work, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” (1961).  But Jacobs provides so many insights that are attuned with this blog that it seemed necessary to introduce her into the conversation.

Not that urban planning is as important as the foundations of physics, but Jacobs strikes me as the urban planning equivalent of Isaac Newton.  Neither invented their subject matter in a void.  Instead, they built upon the knowledge accumulated by their predecessors.  But neither accepted the prevalent interpretations of that knowledge.  Both sought to find new and more accurate explanations, Newton by well-constructed experiments and Jacobs by careful observation of the vast examples offered by New York City.  Both were criticized for taking credit for work that had been done by others, but history has vindicated both and recognized their achievements.

Jane Jacobs came to urban planning through a side door, which may explain why she blazed new trails.  An indifferent high school student, she began her working life doing clerical work for journalists.  Gradually finding her passions in life, she continued her education at a college level, taking a wide range of courses.  She was also given opportunities to write, mostly about the neighborhoods of New York City.   Her enthusiasm for city life led to attendance at several national conferences on urban planning issues. 

But Jacobs was dissatisfied with what the others at the conferences expounded.  She felt a persistent skepticism about the theories of that were behind the urban planning decisions of the 1950s.  She retreated to her home in Greenwich Village, observed the street life below, formulated alternative theories, and looked further in the city to see if her theories held up.  They did.

A scan of her table of contents can get the urban planning adrenaline flowing.  “The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children”,”The need for primary mixed uses”, “The need for small blocks”, “The curse of border vacuums”.  Any of those is enough to cause an urban planning junkie into an avid page-turner.

However, there is one point on which her work and Newton’s had been treated differently by posterity.  Newton’s discoveries were true on an elemental level.  After some initial quibbling, the scientific world accepted what he’d done and began to build upon it.

Jacob’s work is not reducible to mathematical equations.  Instead, it requires a comprehensive understanding of the nuances that she set forth.  But urban planning is often done by codes and ordinances that don’t easily reflect nuanced truths.  Nor do the planners who interpret those codes necessarily have the intuitive understanding of what Jacobs said.  As a result, her messages are often given short shrift in both the writing and implementation of planning codes.

My best example is mixed use.  Jacobs grasped mixed use in terms of street activity.  She was thinking about what she saw on the Greenwich Village street where she lived and worked.  As she watched from her writing desk, she saw the men of the neighborhood leave in the morning, heading for work.  A short time later, children would go to school.  Sooner after, the women (this was a different era) would do daily shopping.  Throughout the day, deliveries would be made.  In the afternoon, children would play in the street.  In the late afternoon, the men would return from work.  And in evening, workers from the Hudson River docks would come to the neighborhood tavern for after work drinks.

At no time during the day was the street deserted.  Merchants had a continual stream of customers and the more vulnerable residents could walk the streets knowing their safety was enhanced by the other people on the street.

From this observation, Jacobs derived her theory of mixed use, that neighborhoods worked best when a variety of local uses resulted in a continuously used street.  The theory is sound and reasonable.

But in practice, mixed use has become an architectural standard.  If residential is placed over streetfront retail, then the mixed use standard was met, regardless of the expected street usage.

It wouldn’t be easy for a planning department to meet the intent of the Jacobs’ meaning of mixed use.  It would likely require incentives or other tools.  Instead, Jacobs’ intent is often forgotten.  The questions of who will be on the streets at 9am on a Wednesday morning or at 9pm on a Saturday evening are rarely, if ever, asked.  Nor is the question asked about whether streetfront businesses can survive with the expected street activity.

So if Jacobs’ puts forth nuanced concepts that can be too easily forgotten, what is the answer?  For me, it’s to read and reread “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” at regular intervals.  Luckily, she writes well enough that the rereading is an insightful pleasure.

A couple of years ago, I was in New York City on a vacation.  Early one morning, two friends and I walked in Greenwich Village.   For me, a required stop was Jacob’s former home at 555 Hudson Street.  It was in good repair, but showed no evidence of Jacobs having lived there.  Nonetheless, I found it moving to look at the window from which she made her profound observations more than fifty years ago.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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