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The Death and Life of Great American Cities Paperback – December 1, 1992
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"The most refreshing, provacative, stimulating and exciting study of this [great problem] which I have seen. It fairly crackles with bright honesty and common sense."—Harrison Salisbury, The New York Times"One of the most remarkable books ever written about the city... a primary work. The research apparatus is not pretentious—it is the eye and the heart—but it has given us a magnificent study of what gives life and spirit to the city."—William H. Whyte, author of The Organization Man
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A classic since its publication in 1961, this book is the defintive statement on American cities: what makes them safe, how they function, and why all too many official attempts at saving them have failed.
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And from the point of view of the humble sidewalk, Jane Jacobs builds a kind of theory of cities: what works and what doesn’t. She makes points that, once she makes them, are nothing more nor less than common sense. She points out that we like interesting things and that what we, as people are most interested in, is other people. So we like to people-watching. And that means we need different, truly different, buildings on our sidewalks. It just doesn’t work to have a part of the city that’s all “about culture” and another part that’s all “about business” and yet a third that’s “all about” housing. We don’t live our lives like that and we should not expect our city to live if every aspect of human life is segregated from every other aspect.
It’s fine—no, it’s healthy—if people live next to a culture center, next to a place of worship, next to a place of business, and next to a park and playground. It means that at all times of the day, every day of the week, you will see different and interesting people on your streets. Sundays, you will see families dressed for church (and teenagers dressed “specially” for church); during the day on weekdays, you will see people in their business attire hurrying to and fro with their important tasks; at lunchtime you will see mothers (and these days increasingly fathers) pushing their baby strollers in the park and at night everyone gathers at the local watering holes and restaurants. If that is what you see where you live, you live in a safe and good neighborhood. A neighborhood where buildings are different not just because they have different paint but because they serve different functions. And that neighborhood is great for business. A baker, a coffee shop, a pub, a bar, a shoe repair shop—all will flourish in a neighborhood like this.
The way to destroy a city, on the other hand, is to destroy a neighborhood by transplanting it into a project. It doesn’t matter how poor that neighborhood is. There are people who live in that place who are genuinely attached to it. A famous story is told (not in this book but as an example) of the Mother of all the Rothschilds not wishing to leave the Jewish Ghetto in Vienna. That is where her friends were and that is where she wanted to live. And no matter how poor a place seems to an outsider, people do put down roots there. And those roots mean that they, the people who are attached to that place, can make it into a thriving, interesting neighborhood. Just like (or even better than) the one I described just now. All they need is a little help: loans from banks to start a business, short blocks, encouraging the kinds of uses the people want. If there is one thing Jane Jacobs is adamant about it’s that a city is about the people who live in it and so you can’t impose a great idea on them-no matter who they are—it has to come from within the community. Because only then will you have a community. And given half a chance, that community will grow and will prosper.
All that, and more, is in this relatively slim (for an urban planning book) volume. A volume that has been (rightly I think) been called a classic. Not just because of its message which is just as relevant today as it was when Jane Jacobs wrote it but because of the writing style. Jane Jacobs is obviously well-read and well-traveled but she does not feel the need t showcase that she read a book or two once. She writes in simple, easy-to-read prose and the lessons she teaches the reader are all the more memorable for that.
I highly recommend it.
Note: this does not do a great job of showing how people relate to spaces as they move. The perspective of urban spaces is mostly static with characters coming and going. For this reason, it pairs well with Kevin Lynch's Image of the City, which focuses on the connections between locales to create a single, broad image.
This is required reading to participate in conversation on contemporary city planning and design.
Perhaps the most powerful aspect of the book is its use of common sense observations of patterns we have all seen, and participate in, but rarely pay attention to - after all, that's just the way it is, right? Turns out, what we experience as members of any neighborhood, and what the city planning and architects of our communities have in mind are all too often entirely different models.
What makes a successful community? What does it mean for a community to be successful? How does diversity come into play, why is it important, and how do we design our cities for it? Why do the planned communities feel so devoid of any sense of, well, community? How do you know if your neighborhood is on the decline?
Jane Jacobs tackles all of the above, and much more. You don't have to be an engineer, an architect, or a planner to appreciate the arguments - after all, given the meteoric rise and growth of cities, most of us today live in one. Well written, and very educational.