Review: The death and life of great American cities

A urban planning lens on Jane Jacobs's seminal work

Prepared 10 December 2010 for Prof. Raphaël Fischler (URBP612, McGill University).

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When Jane Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961, post-war America was ripping out the hearts of its major cities, and this was happening for several complex reasons. Transportation and the Cold War was one: the major expressways, part of Eisenhower’s interstate highway system, were being routed through the hearts of older neighbourhoods where — before the general public and urban planners — these were already nodes of social and economic blight in need of repurposing.

Observations of these contemporary cities by experts — accredited, appointed, and self-acclaimed alike — failed to recognize daily social realities which they either could not see or were disinterested to comprehend. Their trending misconception of the urban condition was one saddled by poverty, dilapidating infrastructure, and even moral turpitude. Urban planners, developers, and politicians believed that “cleaning up” the old cities with a thorough combination of massive public space projects, modern housing developments, and quicker arterial infrastructures would rapidly remedy these perceptions of urbanity beset by social woe.

What Jacobs released with her thoughtfully drafted treatise on the good old city was a kind of bug — a viral, memetic idea — which within fifty years upended several conventional “wisdoms” on city planning. Her ideas re-calibrated basic observational approaches to social-cultural activity at the street level. Moreover, she also coerced people — without forcefully saying such — to face the bugaboo that the condition of older cities was putatively a racialized disease, not a systemic failing of urban and social planning. She did so by demystifying the complex symphony of urban activity.

Death and Life is broadly approachable, even if its content can be fairly dense. Jacobs pulled a bit of a coup to take on a complex topic — the city and all it entails — in a manner meant to be both accessible and useful to a broad audience base. A senior planner or politician could find utility in Death and Life as much as an everyday citizen could. She wrote matter-of-factly in a manner which was at once disarming, yet crisply incisive.

The book is broken into four overarching sections, each more analytical and abstract in scope, leaving the reader to decide how deeply they want to conceptualize the city. The first, “The peculiar nature of cities,” takes a basic, observation-based approach to understanding the cityscape. To the uninitiated, this section functions as a kind of tour guide through one’s own stomping ground as Jacobs draws attention to the prosaic and the transparent. It is a bracing, eye-opening splash to read through each chapter on sidewalks, parks, and neighbourhoods.

Perhaps not surprisingly (at least in hindsight), Jacobs started with sidewalk safety — given that this is often the root point where design, public policy, and popular, but skewed misconceptions about the city originate. The belief that the sidewalk — particularly after sunset — is a de facto site of danger is upended as Jacobs delineates between the surveilled sidewalk and the abandoned, garishly lit sidewalk surrounded by about-face modernist structures. It is in drawing this basic distinction from which her oft-repeated remark, “there must be eyes upon the street,” originates. And she is correct: this is where comprehending the city must start, since this is where (and how) society sees itself in its most unrehearsed form.

Jacobs goes beyond articulating street morphology by defining why a surveilled sidewalk is safer. To do this, she examines the social linkages which weave together the social fabric and embed a sense of safety. Even a visitor with no connection to the community, she contends, will in these right circumstances recognize the sense of protection which comes from populated spaces of resident and proprietor agency over their locality. From the sidewalk, she continues with myth-breaking the orthodox planning tactics of generating urban park spaces as supposed “lungs of the city”. She dismissed as “science fiction nonsense” (91). A park for park’s sake is, she advances, a recipe for disappointment — if not a certain disaster. As with the sidewalk and, later, the neighbourhood, Jacobs stresses the key merits of both diversity and complexity of uses — diverse, but not unpredictable; complex, but not overwhelming.

For the second section, “The conditions for city diversity,” Jacobs begins to fold in more than just the social functions of the healthy city equation by defining four key conditions which must be simultaneously present. This also informs the basis for denoting key economic variables and the value of housing variety. For one, a locality must have multiple purposes, or functions. Some functions are more important than others — primary versus secondary uses — while too much of one can be a street killer. Within that space, the means to get from point A to B must not only be easy and relatively short, but also offer a variety of ways to make the trek. This variety, Jacobs contends, is what gives dimension to the journey with its many potential diversions along the way.

For the small business, Jacobs stresses how this is just as necessary: it opens possibilities for “incubation, experimentation, and many small or special enterprises” (183). For these to be possible, building stocks must include old structures interspersed with the new. Monotony of either stifles the organic evolution and variations of an evolving district, just as density and variety of people using those spaces have a key role in its vitality. What Jacobs radically argued in this bottom-up approach for a kind of civic horticulture is that all the rational, technical planning interventions from the 19th century to her present day, as envisioned and defined by “experts”, was fundamentally flawed, even wholly wrongheaded. A simulated view from above — the map, aerial photo, or design mockup — would never grasp the complex chemistry of just being in those spaces. To do that means making the investment of time and attention to experience and interact with those spaces viscerally — something which Jacobs’s contemporary, William H. Whyte explored in earnest.

In Death and Life’s third section, “Forces of decline and regeneration,” Jacobs outlines the situations which define temporal and socio-economic transitions of the neighbourhood (or city street). Without using the word more familiar to us today — gentrification — she describes the basic groundwork for how and why places deteriorate; how restrictive zoning to effect desired “unslumming” outcomes tends to fail; and how revitalization investments can prove more disruptive than helpful. At this point, her lay audience can probably keep up with the abstract concepts, although it may require a re-reading to fully grasp her finer points. This is not so much a matter of her thesis being arcane than it is a vertically (temporally) and horizontally (spatially) complex model. And this is really Jacobs’s key point: the city is a complex ecosystem, an organism for which some of the organelles are found in other city-organisms, but each is their own unique species; as such, each requires discrete research and ongoing study to understand their inner workings.

Jacobs concludes with a section called “Different tactics,” which was designed to outline possible ways to approach these systems for the budding civic activist. It is also arguably the muddiest part of Death and Life. This is less due to it being ineffective than it is somewhat open-jawed in her effort to confront several broad, prescriptive measures in morsel-sized chapters. Jacobs is also at this point directing her attention squarely at politicians, policy makers, planners, and bankers. Each chapter — subsidies, cars in the city, urban designing, socio-economic remediation, and master-planning — are topically rich enough to warrant their own separate volumes. At best, these chapters are springboards for other ambitious planning projects. As a cohesive section, it can be tough to follow at times if these concepts are still relatively new.

Nevertheless, it is evident throughout her tome that Jacobs completed her field research before setting out to write Death and Life. A few of her arguments do have fundamental flaws which can be solidly challenged with the hindsight of a half-century since the book’s first printing. Still, for the basic points to be as germane now as in 1961 is a testament to her unorthodox way of understanding the city on a wholly intimate level. Without that intimacy, the orthodox-trained planner is simply setting herself up to repeat the avoidable mistakes which have harmed countless cities the world over.

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