The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“Infobox Book”
name The Death and Life of Great American Cities
image caption Cover of The Death and Life of Great American Cities
author Jane Jacobs
country America
language English
genre Non-fiction
publisher Random House
release date 1961
media type Hardback
pages 472
isbn 0375508732

Jacobs’ book is an attack on “orthodox” modern city planning and city architectural design. Looking into how cities actually work, rather than how they should work according to urban designers and planners, Jacobs effectively describes the real factors affecting cities, and recommends strategies to enhance actual city performance.

Part One

Jacobs briefly explains influential ideas in orthodox planning, starting from Howard’s Garden city, indeed a set of self-sufficient small towns, ideal for all but those with a plan for their own lives. Concurrently, City Beautiful was developed to sort out the monuments from the rest of the city, and assemble them in a unit. Later Le Corbusier devised the Radiant City, composed of skyscrapers within a park. Jacobs argues that all these are irrelevant to how cities work, and therefore moves on to explain workings of cities in the first part of the book.

She explores the three primary uses of sidewalks: safety, contact, and assimilating children. Street safety is promoted by pavements clearly marking a public/private separation, and by spontaneous protection with the eyes of both pedestrians and those watching the continual flow of pedestrians from buildings. To make this eye protection effective at enhancing safety, there should be “an unconscious assumption of general street support” when necessary, or an element of “trust”. As the main contact venue, pavements contribute to building trust among neighbors over time. Moreover, self-appointed public characters such as storekeepers enhance the social structure of sidewalk life by learning the news at retail and spreading it. Jacobs argues that such trust cannot be built in artificial public places such as a game room in a housing project. Sidewalk contact and safety, together, thwart segregation and racial discrimination.

A final function of sidewalks is to provide a non-matriarchy environment for children to play. This is not achieved in the presumably “safe” city parks – an assumption that Jacobs seriously challenges due to the lack of surveillance mechanisms in parks. Successful, functional parks are those under intense use by a diverse set of companies and residents. Such parks usually possess four common characteristics: intricacy, centering, sun, and enclosure. Intricacy is the variety of reasons people use parks, among them centering or the fact that parks have a place known as their centers. Sun, shaded in the summer, should be present in parks, as well as buildings to enclose parks.

Jacobs then explores a city neighborhood, tricky to define for while it is an organ of self-governance, it is not self-contained. Three levels of city neighborhoods; city, districts, and streets, can be identified. Streets should be able to effectively ask for help when enormous problems arise. Effective districts should therefore exist to represent streets to the city. City is the source of most public money – from federal or state coffers.

Part Two

Given the importance of all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support, part two of the book explains the conditions for city diversity or the economic workings that produce lively cities. First, districts must serve more than one primary function to ensure presence of people using the same common facilities at different times. Second, blocks should be short, to increase path options between points of departure and destinations, and therefore enhance social and as a result economic development. Third, buildings should be at varying ages, accommodating different people and businesses which can afford different levels of rents. Fourth, there should be a dense concentration of people, including residents, to promote visible city life. It is important that all of these four conditions are necessary to generate diversity, and absence of each one would result in homogeneity and ultimately dullness.

Jacobs refutes the myths about disadvantages of diversity presented in orthodox planning. First she argues that diversity does not innately diminish visual order. Conversely, homogeneity or superficially diverse-looking homogeneous areas lack beauty. Moreover, diversity is not the root cause of traffic congestion, which is caused by vehicles and not people in themselves. Lively, diverse areas encourage walking. Diversity is not permissive to ruinous uses- if defined correctly- either. A category of uses contributing nothing to a district’s general convenience, such as junk yards, grow in unsuccessful spots. In fact, to make these areas successful and thereby dispose of such ruinous uses, diversity should be enhanced. A second category of conceived ruinous uses such as bars and theaters are a threat in grey areas, but not harmful in diverse city districts. The final category includes parking lots, large or heavy truck depots, gas stations, gigantic outdoor advertising and enterprises harmful due to their wrong scale in certain streets. Jacobs suggests that exerting controls on the scale of street frontage permitted to a use would alleviate such a use.

Part Three

Part three of the book is designated to analyzing four forces of decline and regeneration in city cycles: successful diversity as a self-destructive factor, deadening influence of massive single elements in cities, population instability as an obstacle to diversity growth, and effects of public and private money.

Self destruction of outstanding successful districts occurs by ousting less affluent dwellers and businesses, to replace them with more affluent or profitable ones, probably as the multiplication of those already existing in that district. This not only erodes the variety of dwellers and businesses as the base for diversity in that specific district, but also has a cross-effect on the diversity of other localities by depriving them from such profitable businesses and affluent residents needed for mutual support.

Massive single facilities such as railroad tracks, enormous parks, and college campuses create vacuums in areas immediately next to their borders because such areas (adjoining borders) are a terminus of generalized use. Jacobs suggests to figure out border-line cases, such as special park uses (chess or checker pavilions), in order to blend the border and the immediate neighboring area together and yet keep the city as city and the massive element (such as the park) as itself.

Population instability is the third factor in the life cycle of cities. For instance, the reason that slums remain slums is the unstable population of residents there, ready to get out when they have the choice. Therefore, Jacobs suggests that the real slumming process, as opposed to slum shifting through renewal projects or slum immuring practices of orthodox planning, is to make slum dwellers desire to stay and develop neighborhoods. This could possibly be done by gradual incremental monies which make continual improvements in the quality of lives of individual residents of slums.

The last factor is public and private money. Jacobs argues that money has its limitations, incapable of buying inherent success for cities lacking the success factors. She classifies money into three forms: credit extended by traditional, non-governmental lending institutions, money provided by government through tax receipts or borrowing power, and money from the underworld of cash and credit. Jacobs argues that despite the differences, these three kinds of money behave similarly in one regard: They shape cataclysmic, rather than gradual, changes in cities. She matches the cycles in city districts with these types of money: “First the withdrawal of all conventional money, then ruination financed by shadow-world money; then selection of the area by the Planning Commission as a candidate for cataclysmic use of government money to finance renewal clearance”. These cataclysmic monies, in the absence of gradual money, waste city districts which are indeed fit for city life and possess a potential for rapid improvements.

Part Four

Part four of the book is dedicated to effective tactics to actually improve city performance. These include: subsidized dwellings, attrition of automobiles as opposed to erosion of cities by cars, improvement of visual order without sacrificing diversity, salvaging projects, and redesigning governing and planning districts.

Jacobs suggests subsidized dwellings be offered to those who cannot afford normal housing. Unlike the current practice in which the government acts as the landlord, these people can and should be housed by private enterprises in regular buildings, not projects. The government guarantees a rent to the landlords. Tenants pay subsidized rents, calculated based on their income level, and the government pays the difference. This way, under circumstances that tenants’ incomes increase, they are not forced to leave, for their rents would be adjusted. Therefore, diversity would be enhanced by keeping those wishing to remain at their choice. Tenants might be encouraged to stay by letting them own the house gradually, after years of paying rents. Jacobs admits that there are potentials for corruption, but argues that corruption grows as the target of corruption remains unchanged. Thus, she suggests that methods of subsidized dwelling be revised and varied every eight or ten years.

Cities offer multiple choices. However, one cannot take advantage of this fact without being able to get around easily. Thus, accommodating city transportation is important, and this should not destroy the related intricate and concentrated land use. She proposes tactics of giving room to other desired city uses which compete with automobile traffic needs such as widening sidewalks for street displays which would narrow the vehicular roadbed and thereby automatically reduce car use, and traffic congestion.

Jacobs argues that visual cohesiveness should not be regarded as a goal. She stresses the importance of the visual announcement that a high number of streets would make by picturing an intense life. On the down side, if such streets go on and on to the distance, the intricacy and intensity of the “foreground” appears to be repeated infinitely. Therefore the endless repetition and continuation should be hampered, by introducing visual irregularities and interruptions into the city scene, such as irregular street patterns with bends, special buildings, etc.

Finally Jacobs argues that cities are a problem of organized complexity. Unlike simple two-variable or disorganized-complexity problems of statistical randomness, problems of organized complexities are composed of numerous interrelated factors. Therefore, horizontal structures in city planning would work better than vertical structures, which aim at oversimplifying problems of such complexity.

External Links

Death and life
Death and life