The Death and Life of Great American Cities 60 Years Later
It may seem strange to review a book, especially nonfiction, written over a half-century ago. The topics covered by Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), however, are just as relevant today as when she started covering them in the mid-20th century. In that respect, I find reading her today equally fascinating and depressing. All the problems she identified have gotten much worse and there’s little evidence of things turning around. That said, this isn’t going to be less a traditional review of the book but a commentary on how the issues Jane Jacobs raised so long ago are still worth discussing. I will, however, offer a summary of Jacobs’ ideas.
What Jane Jacobs Believed About Cities
Jane Jacobs was born in a rural area but spent most of her life in New York City (Greenwich Village), and later Toronto. The following are some key points of The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
- Traditional planners of modern times (early to mid-20th century) such as Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier actually had an anti-city bias. They wanted to refashion modern cities into utopias based on rural and pastoral models such as “Garden Cities” and “City Beautiful.” Most of these planners also had a rigid and dogmatic view of how people should live.
- Sidewalks are one of the most essential elements of cities. For blocks and neighborhoods to be lively and safe, sidewalks must be convenient for pedestrians and also wide enough for other activities such as children playing. Sidewalks should also be visible from nearby homes and apartments to provide eyes on the streets.
- Diversity is a crucial element for lively and safe neighborhoods. When Jacobs spoke about diversity, she wasn’t using it in the typical modern sense of people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (though this could be present as well) but diverse in terms of occupation, schedules, and reasons to be walking around a neighborhood. For example, a park needs diverse populations who walk through it at all hours. Otherwise it may be busy at certain times and deserted at others.
- Typical solutions to slums often have the opposite effect as intended. Jacobs focuses in particular on the way poor urban dwellers are often subjected to “slum shifting,” moved from one environment to another. Housing projects meant to provide safe and comfortable housing, often degenerate into areas that are dangerous and isolated. Jacobs believed that residents of poor areas should be encouraged to remain and contribute to improving the neighborhood. It’s worth noting that 60 years after the book was published, many of the same problems with poor neighborhoods and housing projects persist.
While Jacobs was highly critical of traditional solutions to poverty, she was not an advocate of leaving everything to market forces. She believed the best approach was to subsidize housing for those who can’t afford it. However, rather than segregate poor people in discrete zones like housing projects, they should be allowed to live in “normal” homes and buildings. She also saw merit in plans that allowed tenants to eventually own the dwellings where they started off renting.
This is not even close to a comprehensive analysis, but merely a summary of some of the main arguments of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Why Jane Jacobs Still Matters Today
In an ideal world (or even a sane one), a book such as The Death and Life of Great American Cities should not matter 60 years later. Not because we’ve evolved past its theories but because we should have long overcome the problems it addresses. Unfortunately, the world of today still has the same problems, only magnified tenfold. Suburban sprawl is rampant and has infected many supposedly urban areas. Unaffordable housing is practically the norm in cities large and small. Jacobs mentions homelessness in passing but the problem has steadily worsened since the 1960s. Many neighborhoods suffer from the kind of entrenched and generational poverty caused by the very policies Jacobs warned us about back then.
The Intimate Link Between Urban Design and Quality of Life
Urban design, transportation, the safety and atmosphere of city streets, and many other issues affecting our daily quality of life are all closely linked to our overall quality of life. This is easy to overlook as society becomes increasingly atomized. We tend to focus on our own bubble, whether that consists of a single person, a couple, a family, or even a closely knit community. No matter how we live, though, there’s always a wider context that determines so much of what we experience every day.
For example, if you commute to work, traffic obviously affects you. On a more subtle level, driving through the typical limbo of modern sprawl has strong psychological effects. Just as the way your home is furnished and decorated influences your daily mood and sense of well being, so does the community around you. Things we now take for granted such as suburban sprawl, congested highways, and monotonous architecture are linked to mental health, social isolation, and the way people interact with each other. It’s not an exaggeration to say that urban (as well as suburban) planning largely determines the values of our whole society.
For example, in Jane Jacobs’ day, television was just starting to become a major force, blamed for people becoming more passive and less connected. The internet, of course, has greatly accelerated these trends. Even “public spaces” now (I put the term in quotes because what are considered public spaces today are largely private, such as Starbucks) are largely asocial environments where each person is fixated on a screen.
Is Technology Really to Blame?
Are technology and devices the root of the issue? The structure, layout, convenience, and atmosphere of neighborhoods, towns, and cities, have just as much influence on our behavior as our ubiquitous devices. Are people staying indoors more because they are entertained (and addicted to) their screens? Or have we become dependent on our screens because it’s too difficult to go anywhere without driving through heavy traffic through depressing sprawl and most destinations are located in identically dismal strip malls? It may be both, but it’s a feedback loop, not a simple case of technology being the cause.
There are fewer and fewer actual neighborhoods today. While real estate agents, as well as homeowners, still talk of areas as neighborhoods, what we really have are ongoing, boundless stretches of residential areas and sprawl separated mainly by zip codes and jurisdictional barriers. Neighborhood bars, coffee shops, family-owned restaurants and shops, and other places where people traditionally congregate and meet one another have mostly morphed into impersonal, corporate environments. When people do go out to these places they are more likely to go alone and remain alone or go with people within their own pre-existing bubble. Sure, preoccupation with phones, tablets, and laptops doesn’t help but it’s hardly the sole cause. I’d argue that they aren’t even the primary cause.
The Future of Cities
Few people seem to have learned the lessons Jane Jacobs imparted so long ago. Part of the problem is that too many interests can make short-term profits from the status quo. Others are just propelled by inertia. All we can really do at this point is campaign locally for policies that support more livable cities. There are people and groups doing their best to keep Jacobs’ traditions alive, such as The Center of the Living City. I think what’s most important is that we don’t allow ourselves to get comfortable with the status quo.