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Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs
Jan 5, 2007, 12:34a - Book Notes

The Death and Life of Great American Cities - Jane Jacobs

This book had been on my list of books to read since I started keeping one a few years ago. I'd heard about it in countless places, and after seeing 2 references to it in Adbusters, I figured it was about time I bought it. I got it for less than $1 used on Amazon, and after about a month have finally finished it.

I'd recommend the book for students of urban studies or others with a burning desire to learn about cities, but all else will get 90% of the benefit by just reading these notes :)

The Death and Life of Greate American Cities, written in 1961 from Greenwich Village, condemns the modern urban planning policies of the time. Watching as many cities deteriorated due to municipal policies of project-building and suburbanization, Jane Jacobs articulates a new program to revitalize the great cities of the US. Her primary thesis is that cities thrive due to diversity, specifically the social diversity of people and the economic and physical diversity of locations (parks, buildings, bars, restaurants, ets.). She lashes out against the Utopian visions of perfect, static design that she calls "the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and be served." (15) In speaking against Utopian cities, she is specifically against:
  • Ebenezer Howard's "Garden City", a self-sufficient small-town that where people would live closer to nature and eliminate the poverty and crime of cities by thinning them out
  • Le Corbusier's "Radiant City", a metropolis of skyscrapers surrounded by parks
  • The "City Beautiful", which emphasized monuments of great grandeur that can still be seen today in many civic centers (such as our very own in SF)

Jacobs begins by discussing city safety, finding that "a well-used city street is apt to be a safe street." (34) In other words, the presence of people is what makes a neighborhood safe. Pretty obvious, but pretty damn insightful too. And the interesting thing is that this can be a positive feedback loop, as the sight of people attracts more people. Children are safer playing in streets where the local shop-owners can keep watch along with the neighbors living above. She found that the "trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts." (56) What I found particularly refreshing about this book was that it articulated fairly clearly what makes a strong neighborhood community, something that I feel most people of my generation have never felt.

Jacobs argues that cities with a poor sidewalk life compromise privacy, because when you meet someone new and you want to continue talking to them, you end up having to invite them into your house. If there are no cafes or other cozy places nearby, a middle-level of privacy, between no contact and close contact, is hard to achieve. This is an interesting observation, and a nuance on privacy that I had never realized before. She's articulating 3 distinct levels: no contact; intermediate contact, which she calls a "public life"; and close contact, which she calls a "private life". She believes all 3 are necessary for healthy social interaction, and a good city supports all of them.

She goes on to say:
The more common outcome in cities, where people are faced with the choice of sharing much or nothing, is nothing. In city areas that lack a natural and casual public life, it is common for residents to isolate themselves from each other to a fantastic degree. If mere contact with your neighbors threatens to entangle you in their private lives, or entangle them in yours, and if you cannot be so careful who your neighbors are as self-selected upper-middle-class people can be, the logical solution is absolutely to avoid friendliness or casual offers of help. Better to stay thoroughly distant. (65)
Jacobs goes on to make an important point about what children learn when their neighbors and local shop-owenrs watch over them in the street:
In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalks do children learn - if they learn it at all - the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other. This is a lesson nobody learns by being told. It is learned from the experience of having other people without ties of kinship or close friendship or formal responsibility to you take a modicum of public responsibility for you. (82)
Many of the Utopian thinkers wanted to do away with city streets, and Jacobs eloquently shows that this would be a terrible idea. As an aside, Jacobs also refers to homeless people in a way I thought clever, calling them the "leisured indigent". I've added this to "street sleeper" on my list of better words for the leisured indigent.

Jacobs believes that effective neighborhood planning for cities should aim to:
  • Foster lively and interesting streets
  • Make the fabric of these streets as continuous a network as possible throughout a district of potential subcity size and power
  • Use parks and squares and public building to knit together this fabric, not to island off neighborhoods
  • Emphasize the functional identity of areas large enough to work as districts.

To repair the decline of existing cities by diversity generation, Jacobs advocates doing 4 things, and these form the core of the book. She believes that all 4 must be in place for a city to flourish:

  1. The district must serve more than one primary function, preferably more than 2, which will ensure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes (e.g. the same neighborhood would have work buildings and schools during the day, restaurants and bars at night, residences throughout)
  2. Most blocks must be short (~400 ft) which allows multiple pathways en route to the same location, which supports broader commercial areas and greater foot-traffic for safety
  3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, so that new businesses and poorer residents can afford to be there
  4. There must be sufficiently dense concentration of people (>100 dwellings/acre)

Here's what happens if the blocks are short: there are more pathways to the same location, so more people mingle and more commercial venues can be sustained on main street offshoots. (181)

On having buildings of various ages with a gradient of rents, Jacobs writes, "Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings." (188)

Jacobs also clarifies a misconception: most urban planners think that high densitioes is the same as overcrowding, the first of which is required for a successful city. High densities means large numbers of dwellings per acre of land. Overcrowding means too many people in a dwelling for the number of rooms, with 1.5 persons/room considered overcrowded. She also classifies densities into the different kinds of neighborhoods:
  • < 7 dwellings/acre -> suburb
  • 10 - 20 dwellings/acre -> semisuburb (ala Garden City), though likely destined to become a "gray area" in a city
  • > 100 dwellings/acre -> city with vitality, usually with a ground coverage ratio of 60-80% (any greater she finds intolerable)

Another insight about city diversity: "The most serious fault of our zoning laws lies in the fact that they permit an entire area to be devoted to a single use." (229) This also seems obvious, and I've known about city zoning since I was a kid, but this never dawned on me to be a problem. I grew up in the suburbs of Santa Monica, where nearby apartments, commercial, or mixed-use buildings were frowned on by my parents. Now I understand why Santa Monica seemed so quiet and boring...

On the wonders of the city, she cites Paul Tillich, professor of theology at Harvard: "By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by travelling; namely, the strange. Since the strange leads to questions and undermines familiar tradition, it serves to elevate reason to ultimate significance...There is no better proof of this fact than the attempts of all totalitarian authorities to keep the strange from their subjects...The big city is sliced into pieces, each of which is observed, purged, and equalized. The mystery of the strange and the critical rationality of men are both removed from the city." (238)

Jacobs discusses forces that cause decline in cities:
  • The tendency for outstandingly successful diversity in cities to destroy itself, due to competition driving out older businesses and representing only a narrow slice of the constituents of success. This can be held off by zoning for diversity, staunchness of public buildings, and competitive diversion.
  • The tendency for massive single elements, such as neighborhood borders, waterfronts, freeways, and railroad tracks, to cast a deadening influence to areas nearby. This can be combatted by specifically encouraging diversity (in the 4 ways above) at these borders.
  • The tendency for population instability to counter the growth of diversity, especially in government-owned and -built project slums. There, inhabitants move out too fast but if they'd choose to stay the area would slowly become revitalized. They would choose to stay due to personal attachments to other people and to maintain their reputation in the community.
  • The tendency for either public, private, or shadow money to glut, encouraging development so rapid it damages the community, or starve, due to blacklisting of certain "bad" neighborhoods by lenders.

Jacobs advocates that instead of owning projects, government should provide guaranteed-rent programs. These programs would guarantee to a private builder that he would get the financing necessary for construction. It would also guarantee a rent for the dwellings in the building sufficient to carry them economically. The builder would be required to (a) build his building in a designated neighborhood or spot, and (b) select his tenants from a designated area or designated group of buildings. After tenant selection, the program would look into tenant income levels and pay the portion of the rent that the tenant couldn't afford. In this way the transaction would not be humiliating to the poor, and would encourage diversity of economic ability within the tenant community. As a tenant's income improved, they would pay more of the rent, and they wouldn't be kicked out if they rose above a certain income level (unlike conventional projects). Most intriguing, one option would be to let the tenant take over the mortgage when they could afford to. This type of program would reduce eminent domain grabbings and cause more gradual city change, both of which are good things.

Cars are also considered a blight in cities, and can lead to nasty sprawls like LA, which once had the best transit system before GM bought them all up and shut them down to increase the need for cars. As public transportation is reduced, cars become more necessary, causing roads to be widened and parking areas constructed, further bulging the sprawl. Interestingly, "So chronic is the [traffic] problem that the engineers propose to remove stalled cars from the highways by helicopter. The truth is that a horse and buggy could cross Los Angeles almost as fast in 1900 as an automobile can make this trip at 5 PM today." (354) Both the attrition of cars by cities and the decline of cities by cars are positive feedback loops, and the former should be encouraged by widening sidewalks, shortening signal frequencies for buses, and reduced parking.

Jacobs extols the benefits of visual interruptions, "cutting off the indefinite distant view and at the same time visually heightening and celebrating intense street use by giving it a hint of enclosure and entity." (380) One way is to add additional streets cleaving the blocks that are too long.

To salvage projects, Jacobs encourages guaranteed-rents, carts selling stuff, elevator attendents, 1st floor renovation, and abandonment of income limits.

Finally, Jacobs advocates more local governance within cities, dividing the city into a multitude of 100,000-person districts with each district doing all city functions within its boundaries led by a district mayor. This way the district has a deeper understanding of its area, which current city management lacks.

Jacobs does demonstrate some humility, stating that her recommendations aren't set in stone and will need to be revised as they are tried and needs change.

I mostly liked the book, but it did have its negatives. Jacobs writes in a very biased, subjective way. It's hard to tell what policies she proposes would really work if you're not persuaded by her rhetoric. Making controversial assertions without any evidence or citations further weakens the persuasive power of her book. She provides very little in the way of data and previous experiments, and even when she does she only cites incidents that support her thesis, rather than municipal successes that do not. She is also redundant - the book is 450 pages but should have been edited down to 200 pages at most. Jacobs also seems pretty bitter and arrogant, making sardonic comments like, "The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success." (183)

Misc. quotes:
- "When it is said that we are too much occupied with the means of living to live, I answer that the chief worth of civilization is just that it makes the means of living more complex...Because more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it." - Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

- "Naturally, in time, forceful and able men, admired administrators, having swallowed the initial fallacies and having been provisioned with tools and with public confidence, go on logically to the greatest destructive excesses, which prudence or mercy might previously have forbade." (13)

- This reminded me of San Francisco's civic center: "People were proud of them [civic centers], but the centers were not a success. For one thing, invariably the ordinary city around them ran down instead of being uplifted, and they always acquired an incongruous rim of ratty tattoo parlors and second-hand-clothing stores, or else just nondescript, dispirited decay. For another, people stayed away from them to a remarkable degree. Somehow, when the fair became part of the city, it did not work like the fair." (25)

- "No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down." (32)

- "There are only two ultimate public powers in shaping and running American cities: votes and control of the money. To sound nicer, we may call these "public opinion" and "disbursement of funds," but they are still votes and money...The art of negating the power of votes with the power of money can be practiced just as effectively by honest public administrators as by dishonest representatives of purely private interests. Either way, seduction or subversion of the elected is easiest when the electorate is fragmented into ineffectual units of power." (131)

- "Populations in metropolitan absorb 97% of our total population increase." (218)

- "Systems of thought, no matter how objective they may purport to be, have underlying emotional bases and values. The development of modern city planning and housing reform has been emotionally based on a glum reluctance to accept city concentrations of people as desirable, and this negative emotion about city concentrations of people has helped deaden planning intellectually." (221)

- "Art is the one medium in which one cannot lie successfully." (225)

- "Look to see where banks and insurance companies are clustered, and you will too often see where a center of diversity has been supplanted, a knoll of vitality leveled." (250)

- "A fool can put on his own clothes better than a wise man can do it for him." - Marshall Shaffer (324)

- "We are now so prone to confuse big building projects with big social achievements." (336)

- "A city cannot be a work of art." (372)

- "For all our conformity, we are too adventurous, inquisitive, egoistic and competitive to be a harmonious society of artists by consensus, and, what is more, we place a high value upon the very traits that prevent us from being so." (374)

- "Suggestion - the part standing for the whole - is a principal means by which art communicates; this is why art often tells us so much with such economy." (377)

Read comments (6) - Comment

Buzz - Jan 5, 2007, 12:49p
From what I hear, Jacobs is practically revered in Canada. My dad owns multiple copies of this book and makes a point of giving one to anyone he comes across who happens to have some sway in LA politics. Hollywood is a good example, for instance, of how not to organize a city.

Neha - Jan 5, 2007, 5:56p
The first few paragraphs of your analysis are interesting, but after that I decided that I really disagree with Jacobs, particularly her list of forces that cause decline in cities.

She seems very pro status quo, citing "competition driving out older businesses" as a reason -- I see exactly the opposite happening in my area of the east Mission. This is an area in great need of new restaurants, bars, and shops for all the yuppies moving in, but instead we have perpetually empty hair salons and bad shoe repairs shops. I have never understood how these places afford their rent, but its clear to me that driving them out would only benefit the community and their existence only furthers stagnation.

Anyway, your summary was really interesting! My town in Illinois has a requirement that every property be on no less than 5 acres -- we're beyond a suburb of Chicago, I think the term they use now is exurb. I don't know a single neighbor.

Buzz - Jan 6, 2007, 2:06p
"People were proud of them [civic centers], but the centers were not a success. For one thing, invariably the ordinary city around them ran down instead of being uplifted."

One problem that emerges in the rise of cities is that the financial incentives of concentrating office buildings and commercial centers crowds out residentials. As a result, downtown areas are bustling with commerce during the day and become ghost towns at night when all the middle class businessmen flee the depressed inner city for their homes in the affluent suburbs. Without local residents investing in keeping the city livable, crime and poverty result.

nikhil - Jan 8, 2007, 9:41a

Thanks for leaving a comment :)

A few things:

1) I think I may have miscommunicated Jacobs's intent. She actually is not pro status quo - she is pro gradual change rather than what she calls the "cataclysmic" change that changes too much too quickly and never lets a real community settle in.

2) Regarding "competition driving out older businesses": Jacobs sees competition as generally a good thing, except when it leads to monotony, which she views as the antithesis to diversity. For example, the Promenade in Santa Monica went from nothing in the 80s to being one of the most popular malls in SoCal. It is still a great, diverse place, largely due to the street performers and retail carts. However, it's diversity declined as big-name brands took over as they saw the popularity of the location rise. I'm not sure about the details of acquiring space in the Promenade, other than that it is controlled by the city rather than a private developer, so they may have some restrictions in place to maintain diversity (it's still very diverse).

3) I suspect the lack of change in your area of the Mission is due to rent-control. I view rent-control as a good thing, not only because it prevents gentrification and the associated displacement of poorer people, but because it reduces the speed of change, allowing a community to solidify. To build a new development one needs to wait awhile for the space to open up, which supports the creation of a real community. I disagree with your statement that "driving them [older retailers] out would benefit the community" - it may benefit the yuppie community, but about the older, poorer, more entrenched Hispanic community? Would it benefit them?

Thanks again for the thought-provoking comment.

omar - Jan 8, 2007, 6:23p
i have a lot of comments but one that just struck me and needed immediate typing:

would mixed-zoning ideas make projects in corporations possibly run more smoothly? think of the random corporation as zoned into legal, corporate, engineering, management, etc etc.. often the communication between groups working on the same project occurs at team meetings or over email. of course, positioning people in the same place is hard if people work on multiple projects, which is often true. but then again i wonder how effective it is for people to be spread across many projects, unless you're higher up in the management chain.

anyway, i feel like having the whole "work community" of a project near each other might measurably improve the project outcomes.

anyway, just an idea, and one i'm sure others have had.

Buzz - Jan 9, 2007, 1:47p
Another thing to consider, one that is not fully anticipated by Jane Jacobs' important book, is the effect that improved communication technologies will have in bringing people from diverse geographic regions into direct virtual proximity.

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