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A direct and fundamentally optimistic indictment of the short sightedness and intellectual arrogance that has characterized much of urban planning in this century The Death and Life of Great American Cities has since its first publication in 1961 become the standard against which all endeavors in that field are measured In prose of outstanding immediacy Jane Jacobs writes about what makes streets safe or unsafe; about what constitutes a neighborhood and what function it serves within the larger organism of the city; about why some neighborhoods remain impoverished while others regenerate themselves She writes about the salutary role of funeral parlors and tenement windows the dangers of too much development money and too little diversity Compassionate bracingly indignant and always keenly detailed Jane Jacobs's monumental work provides an essential framework for assessing the vitality of all cities

10 thoughts on “The Death and Life of Great American Cities

  1. says:

    This is a common assumption that human beings are charming in small numbers and noxious in large numbers I picked up this book immediately after finishing The Power Broker and I highly recommend this seuence to anyone who has the time The conflict between Robert Moses czar like planner of New York City for almost half a century and Jane Jacobs ordinary citizen and activist has become the source of legend There is a book about it Wrestling with Moses a well made documentary Citizen Jane and an opera A Marvelous Order with a libretto written by a Pulitzer Prize winner I haven’t seen it The two make an excellent hero and villain Moses the autocratic power hungry city planner who eviscerates neighborhoods and bulldozes homes Jacobs the underdog autodidact community organizer defender of Greenwich Village and Washington Suare Park The two did not only clash in life—with Jacobs leading protests to stop Moses’s highways—but importantly in thought More diametrically opposed conceptions of the city could hardly be imaginedMoses was at bottom a follower of Le Corbusier a modernist who put forward the idea of the Radiant City The idea was to create a city with all the different functions in separate zones—sections for retail business manufacturing residence—and to create as much green space as possible by putting everything in high rise buildings freeing up land for parks These buildings would be connected not by ordinary roads but by giant superhighways In a way it is a conception of the city that is anti city there would be no streets no corner shops no neighborhoods The impulse was I believe originally progressive to erase differences in class by creating uniform conditions for everyone But in Moses’s hands this philosophy became deeply reactionary isolate the poor people of color in projects and build highways for the car owning middle class Jacobs was absolutely opposed to this model There are innumerable theoretical differences between Jacobs and Moses but I think the most essential difference is this Jacobs loved cities She loved walking around cities chatting with neighbors gazing at street life making small talk at local shops sitting on stoops and leaning out windows And so her idea of urban planning is not to pack everyone into high rise buildings to get them off the street but the reverse to get as many people on the street as possible She loves the messiness of cities A healthy city is not for her a work of art consciously designed It is like a biological organism shaped by natural selection into a well functioning complex interrelated constantly changing whole Healthy cities are not made by planners but by ordinary people Since the publication of this book Jacobs’s ideas have become enormously influential—so influential in fact that it is difficult to see anything radical about what she says One of her basic principles for example is that a well used street is a safe street because the presence of many bystanders discourages crime I suspect that this seems obvious to most people But when you look at the projects that Moses and his ilk built—high rise buildings surrounded by lawns with no shops restaurants or anything else to attract people to street level—you realize how totally out of touch they were Indeed the whole idea of housing projects sounds like a recipe for disaster pack all the poor into one area set income limits so anyone successful has to move out discourage all street activity to eliminate a sense of community And in practice the projects were disasters—centers of delinuency and despair Jacobs’s recipe for creating a healthy neighborhood has four ingredients 1 mixed uses so that different kinds of people are drawn to the area at different times of day for different reasons; 2 a mixture of old and new buildings so that there is low rent space available for small businesses and low income residents; 3 small blocks so that streets are not isolated from one another; and 4 sufficient density of residents to create the necessary amount of economic and social activity The goal is to produce a neighborhood like her own Greenwich Village with lots of street life with successful residents who choose to stay long term with local stores and restaurants and cafes and with a steady influx of immigrants To use a metaphor Jacobs thinks we should try to create an ecosystem with a lot of biodiversity; and to do this we need a lot of biomass and a lot of separate niches The essential fact about ecosystems—which also applies to cities—is that they are a delicate balance of different elements deeply complex shaped by the action of countless individual players over countless eons This level of complexity is baffling to the human mind which is why we so often disrupt ecosystems by trying to “improve” them Urban planning does the same thing with cities The Moses approach to continue the metaphor is agricultural rather than natural sweep away the natural environment and create an artificial monoculture Monocultures never spring up in healthy ecosystems Lacking biodiversity they are inherently vulnerable and difficult to maintain We expend enormous amounts of money and energy defending our wheat fields from vermin and disease The same principle applies to the housing projects which need constant police surveillance to remain remotely viable This gives a taste of Jacobs’s guiding idea perhaps but I can hardly do justice to the wealth of thought in this book Jacobs has convincing sociological insights into what makes streets safe or unsafe what makes city economies thrive or stagnate why housing projects fail and slums form why parks are used and unused why city governments are so often inefficient and ineffective and even includes her ideas on the history and progress of science In a way this book is a constant rebuke to academe At the time academic urban planning was entirely stagnant relying on ideas and principles that hadn’t been modified in thirty years and which were never very good to begin with It took someone like Jacobs an autodidact without a college degree to break up the orthodoxy—and she had to endure a lot of sexism and condescension in the process What made her so successful and what has made this book so enduring was a rare combination of talents keen observation a highly original mind the ability to think on multiple scales at once hard nosed practicality and a healthy sense of social responsibility In this book she relies on her wide and somewhat eclectic reading but even on her own eyes and ears She has visited successful and unsuccessful neighborhoods and had talked to their residents She has led protests and was a freuent visitor of City Hall When you read this book it is easy to see why she has become something of a hero for many citizens and academics she is absolutely unafraid of authority either intellectual or political and she had the mental and personal resources to win It is of course ironic that her ideas so heterodox eventually became the new orthodoxy of urban planning When Jacobs passed away in 2006 there were many who called for an end to her intellectual reign The most common criticism I believe is that Jacobs did not anticipate gentrification—the gradual takeover of neighborhoods by the affluent This is the most talked about problem in New York City today There’s a popular blog Vanishing New York which documents all the small business and local establishments being pushed out by big money Jacobs’s own former neighborhood Greenwich Village is a prime example now it is nothing like the bustling bohemian working class place it was in her day I’m not sure if Jacobs can be fairly blamed for this however For one she anticipates how successful neighborhood can become “too successful” and lose their vitality as money pours in What’s she was very concerned with maintaining housing for low income tenants within successful neighborhoods and includes a novel plan to do so in this book In any case this book is not just a recipe for creating neighborhoods In an obliue way it presents an entire ideology Jacobs is a proponent of what you might call progressive decentralism Normally decentralism is associated with the right at least here in the US but Jacobs make a strong case for leftist decentralism Large vertically oriented government structures simply cannot understand or respond to individual citizens’ needs The answer is to empower local government so that citizens can shape their own neighborhoods Government must help the disadvantaged but must do so by cooperating with local forces and private individuals—exploiting economic and social elements that naturally arise instead of imposing its own cumbrous structure This book can be read even broadly as an attack on suburbia and modern isolation Cities are the future as Jacobs reminds us—hotbeds of ideas and centers of population growth; and cities are natural products created by the free choice of individuals places that organically foster their own sense of identity and community Suburbia is a rejection of cities artificial products created through the deliberate policies of planners Not shaped by free choice they are not organic communities; and even if they escape being unsafe like the projects they foster that constant specter of modern life isolation When you hear Jacobs describe her own neighborhood in Greenwich Village you get a sense of what so many places nowadays lack neighborliness friendliness a group of semi strangers and sidewalk acuaintances who will go out of their way to help each other a sense of communal ownership and belonging In sum this book is a true classic ensconced in an intellectual climate that no longer exists responding to contemporary problems with elouence and insight and championing a perspective that is still vital

  2. says:

    My favorite uotes from my re read of this book last week with city eye candyOn TRUST The trust of a city street is formed over time from many many little public sidewalk contacts Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all p 56On PRIVACY A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact enjoyment or help from the people around p59On the need for CASUAL CONTACTS and PUBLIC SPACE Under a well compartmentalized local system it is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements without boredom necessity for excuses explanations fears of giving offense embarrassments respecting impositions or commitments and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships It is possible to be on excellent sidewalk terms with people who are very different from oneself p 62Here it is necessary to take issue with a common belief about cities—the belief that uses of low status drive out uses of high status This is not how cities behave People or uses with money at their command or greater respectability can fairly easily supplant those less prosperous or those of less status The reverse seldom happens p 97On ENGINEERING SOCIAL TURNAROUND It is fashionable to suppose that certain touchstones of the good life will create good neighborhoods—schools parks clean housing and the like How easy life would be if this were so How charming to control a complicated and ornery society by bestowing upon it rather simple physical goodies In real life cause and effect are not so simple p 112On CROWDS and MORALITY People gathered in concentrations of big city size and density can be felt to be an automatic—if necessary—evil This is a common assumption that human beings are charming in small numbers and noxious in large numbers On the other hand people gathered in concentrations of city size and density are desirable because they are the source of immense vitality a great and exuberant richness of differences and possibilities many of these differences uniue and unpredictable and all the valuable because they are p220On the BEAUTY of CHAOS Intricate minglings of different uses in cities are not a form of chaos On the contrary they represent a complex and highly developed form of order p 222On the UGLINESS of ORDER Homogeneity poses very puzzling esthetic problems If the sameness of use is shown candidly for what it is—sameness—it looks monotonous Superficially this monotony might be thought of as a sort of order however dull But esthetically it unfortunately also carries with it a deep disorder the disorder of conveying no direction In such places you move but in moving you seem to have gotten nowhere North is the same as south or east as west It takes differences—many differences—cropping up in different directions to keep us oriented p 223On DESIGNING FOR HUMANS Genuine differences in the city architectural scene express Jacobs uoting Eugene Raskin 'the interweaving of human patterns They are full of people doing different things with different reasons and different ends in view and the architecture reflects and expresses this difference Being human human beings are what interest us most In architecture as in literature and the drama it is the richness of human variation that gives vitality and color to the human setting Considering the hazard of monotony the most serious fault in our zoning laws lies in the fact that they permit an entire area to be devoted to a single use' p 229Jacobs uoting Paul J Tillich 'Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because and only when they are created by everybody' p 238Why LASTING SUCCESS IN CITIES IS HARD A diversified mixture of uses at some place in the city becomes outstandingly popular and successful as a whole Because of the location's success which is invariably based on flourishing and magnetic diversity ardent competition for space in this locality develops It is taken up in what amounts to the economic euivalent of a fad p 243Slum clearance and project style urban renewal fails because it tries to overcome causes of trouble by diddling with symptoms Conventional planning approaches to slums and slum dwellers are thoroughly paternalistic The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so p 271On ASSIMILATING NEWCOMERS People are accomodated and assimilated not in undigestible floods but as gradual additions in neighborhoods capable of accepting and handling strangers in a civilized fashion They uickly assimilate into the public street life and are lively and competent at holding up their end These very same people could hardly act as they do within the community nor would they be likely to stay put as long were they part of a tumultuous replacement throng p 283When we deal with cities we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense Because this is so there is a basic esthetic limitation on what can be done with cities a city cannot be a work of art p 372

  3. says:

    Impassioned if dated The Death and Life of Great American Cities sets out to catalogue the conditions that make a large city diverse safe and vibrant Jacobs begins her work by critiuing modernist urban planning as pseudo scientific and dangerously out of touch with reality before she turns to examining why and how some city neighborhoods prosper while others decline Focusing mainly on New York her home the author offers great insight into what makes urban life teem with vitality and then repeats those insights over and over; she’s also short on policy suggestions and her analysis fails to fully account for the role race plays in housing gentrification and disinvestment The prose is alternately tedious and moving—the sections in which Jacobs describes street life shine as do those that first build her thesis

  4. says:

    I know some people who will balk at my 3 star rating so I will explain myself As a body of work it is amazing and I adore Jane Jacobs However a good portion of this book still manages to be dull despite being very important I can't help it I dig nonfiction and I think 3 stars for a non fiction book means it's pretty darn good because who ever finished a cruddy non fiction book unless they were taking a class? So I read it voluntarily and give it 3 stars on the highly sensitive and mysterious non fiction rating system

  5. says:

    Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been on my mental to read list since I read The Power Broker which was long ago It was not the book I imagined it to be Robert Moses here lurks mostly unmentioned darting behind some of the paragraphs very rarely making an appearance in an actual sentenceJacobs view of the city struck me as Darwinian the life there is the life there can be The city is an ecosystem and diversity promotes diversity The problem in her view is that zoning regulations slum clearances road building particularly driving express routes through neighbourhoods and economic specialisation tend to have the opposite effect they reduce diversity and cause parts of the city to die backIn part she attributes this to a tradition of urban reformers and town planners from Ebenezer Howard and his garden cities onwards who did not much like urban life and thought of the small town or the village as the ideal human community there influence for her is much like having Teetotallers running the bars breweries and distilleriesShe also consciously or unconsciously draws on the idea of complex systems p452 the city is a complex diverse system it's management and government reuire both an overview and detailed local knowledge Political and administrative structures tend to facilitate the first but not the second leading to top down interventions whether slum clearance or cutting new roads through the cityscape either causing harm than good or shifting the problem around view spoiler literally in the case of slum landlords who are compensated for the loss of their property on the basis of their income so the sualidly overcrowded their property was the they are compensated and with that money they buy property elsewhere in the city and they have a dataset of tenants they can use to rapidly fill up the new property with the newly homeless hide spoiler

  6. says:

    The Death and Life of Great American Cities was both a frustrating and an illuminating bookIt was frustrating because it was long and in many parts dull I was yawning at 3 o'clock in the afternoon while drinking coffee and reading this This book is a fabulous soporific and I recommend it heartily to insomniacs everywhereIt was also frustrating because it is showing its age Jacobs longs for diverse neighborhoods with fruit stands and butcher shops that aren't coming back filled with bored housewives that can spend their time staring out windows and scolding naughty children playing with marbles The supermarket is here to stay and stay at home moms or dads are uncommon Jacobs also has a ridiculous idea of what people enjoy about city life I for one would not find it charming to hear a midnight bagpipe serenadeIt was also frustrating because it offered up far problems with contemporary city planning than it did solutions for city problems She was antagonistic towards contemporary city planning and for good reason their actions inevitably led to a reduction in neighborhood diversity one of Jabobs' key elements for a successful city neighborhood But her solutions were few other than to stop practices that had proven failures but that continue to be implemented today 50 years later and the few solutions she had struck me as nearly as inherently flawed as the practices she despisedIt was illuminating because it revealed the many reasons why low income housing projects failed time and time again I had always thought of it as a failure of modernist architecture which in part it was but there were many reasons Entire neighborhoods were torn apart pulling apart existing social orders and put into a new neighborhood completely lacking in diversity in terms of businesses dwelling types and people Anyone who lived in the projects who improved their financial situation was forced to move out thus insuring that the projects would always remain poor and lacking in economic diversity There were parks and common areas but possibly too many parks and common areas that are underutilized become dangerous This is one area where Jacobs' recommendations were possibly useful as the federal government has incorporated many of her ideas to subsidize low income tenants in private housing rather than in monolithic government owned housing sites Frankly the talk about projects reminded me very much of the University of Michigan's Bursley Hall It feels wrong for a middle class suburbanite to complain about his college dormitory in relation to low income housing projects but I hate that place with a passion and I will celebrate when that building is torn down Housing 1200 college students together in an isolated location cut off from town or the rest of campus is an abominable ideaNaturally I enjoyed the chapter about the automobile and found her commentary interesting Every time we make a concession to automobile traffic to reduce congestion or increase parking we are taking away the very things that make a city pedestrian friendly Traffic and parking concessions happen slowly and over time so she argues that taking them back for sidewalks and storefronts can only happen slowly and over time as wellSome other illuminating points it revealed the danger of cataclysmic money large irregular investments something I've already read about regarding science funding Slow and steady investment over time is the best way to encourage perpetual growth Vertical silos of city management often cause the departments to overlook uniue differences in individual neighborhoods this made me appreciate the structure of large universities where each school operates with a large amount of independenceI finally read this book after I was publicly complaining about Birmingham Ala and attributed its flaws primarily to a lack of population density Although Jabobs does cite density as a necessity for a vibrant city Murph a friend and city planner recommended I read this book Indeed Jacobs ties things together in the last chapter and reveals that thinking about city issues in terms of one or two variables such as population per suare mile is unproductive Jacobs says the following in regards to city parks but I think the statement can be applied much broadly to avoid reductionist strategiesThis is a far cry from the simple problem of ratios of open space to ratios of population; but there is no use wishing it were a simpler problem or trying to make it a simpler problem because in real life it is not a simpler problemIf you've made it to the end of this overly long review I'll give you the one sentence summary Utopian city planning leads to urban Dystopias and urban diversity in its buildings in its uses in its people is the best way to achieve a vibrant city

  7. says:

    You know that feeling you get when someone expresses a political belief that you share but explains the position using arguments that you find unavailing anecdotal or specious? That's what this book felt like It was like de Tocueville takes on modern American cities inductive reasoning applied selectively to undergird a set of beliefs and proselytize for their superiorityI had such high hopes for this one but it dragged on relentlessly I made it about halfway through this book before abandoning the effort How many pages can Jacobs expect us to endure being browbeaten about the preferability of short blocks over long ones? About how people misjudge Greenwich Village and Boston's North End to be slums ha I guess this was kinda true somewhat recently? And what would Jane Jacobs have to say about our current tony and healthy urban neighborhoods which thrive despite the certainly lamentable absence of any type of coherent community structure Jacobs' sine ua non for healthy neighborhood dynamics? It's almost as if Jacobs thinks her own Sesame Street cast of characters is a prereuisite for every healthy urban biome because without the proper complement of kibitzers shouting unsolicited weekend bus route information to strangers and Joe Cornacchia delicatessen proprietor and premonitory glance giver extraordinaire anomie would prevail I'm happy that New York looks like Jacobs' vision than like Moses' but this feels like it could have been adeuately conveyed in pamphlet form

  8. says:

    This is one of the most important books about cities ever written It's what helps you understand why cities work why they don't work what makes a neighborhood what destroys neighborhoods and how almost everything city planners and governments think matters doesn't Seth Roberts is probably the biggest Jane Jacobs fan there is He's what she calls an insider outsider insider in terms of understanding outsider in terms of career She was an activist and a student who understood the system but wasn't wedded to it or dependent on it for a living It was this uniue position that gave her the freedom and the perspective to explain the concept of American cities and what's killing them in a way that no one had ever done before I also think that a lot of Jacobs' ideas about diversity mixed uses isolation wealth and government can be applied to other parts of our lives The way she gets to the core of neighborhood passing up the easy or obvious signs that others are mistakenly distracted with is impressive There is a great Malcolm Gladwell article where he tries to use some of her ideas to dissect office culture it's a good start and example about other canvases for her ideas

  9. says:

    An urban classic that remains applicableJacobs makes a strong case and repeats it over and over

  10. says:

    One of the books that all planners are supposed to have read I know it's a bit shocking that I have only now read it And regrettable It deserves every ounce of it's status as a classic if such status were to be measured in ounces It's eminently readable and isn't that a pleasure in a book of this kind but also incredibly insightful and of course I love how it resonates so brilliantly with my experience living in many different cities while toppling most accepted planning theory The diverse cities are the people love them The people on the street at all different times of day the safer and enjoyable those streets are High foot traffic allows a glorious flowering in the kinds of local businesses to spring up and those in turn provide stability and attraction to the street The longer people stay in neighborhoods and the they feel pride and ownership and love for them the better those neighborhoods become It's brilliant to be able to walk out of your door and buy what you need within a few blocks getting to know the shop owners as you do so Kids growing up in this environment feel a sense of civic engagement and helpfulness and are accountable and supervised by a multitude of friendly and known adults And who could know better the improvements and changes needed for a neighborhood than those who live there? And yet planning over decades has worked to destroy all thisThis is a practical and eminently sensible account of what makes city neighbourhoods work I think its weaknesses are highlighted by the fact that it is a rare popular book read by those who are not planners and accepted as a classic amongst urban planners themselves and yet although written in 1961 has had remarkably little effect on how planning occurs or how urban development takes place This points to the uestions that Jacobs answers only superficially why exactly planning and development have taken the shape they have That is truly a tragedy for it is full of brilliant and insightfully practical suggestions on how to improve both It does look at the process of redlining it has some analysis of racism and classism and prejudice but not enough And ultimately the driving forces of profit and capitalism are left unuestioned To find those you have read David Harvey and Neil Smith and a host of others I don't think that makes the insight offered by Jacobs any less simply incomplete and highlights the fact that a fundamental change in how we develop and plan our cities is reuired one based upon need and increasing vitality rather than the greatest profit