The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Notes)

One of my books for summer reading is Jane Jacobs’ classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. I’ve been meaning to get around to it and am happy that I finally did. I’ve only about a quarter into the book, but Jacobs has already stimulated my thinking. Because of that, I wanted to write down some of my thoughts as I read this book. Hopefully, bring draw comments from others who have read the book as well as encourage people to read the book if they haven’t already.

The book, published in 1961, is a critique against the urban design and planning of the time (her points seem valid today). Jacobs talks about what makes a city alive versus dead. I believe she goes on to explain the factors that make up lively, thriving city.

I want to start by saying some general impressions that makes me excited about the book so far.

First of all, Jacobs speaks about an abstract subject in relatively concrete way, accessible to laypeople. Writing on urban planning and architecture can be very arcane and intimidating to the non-professional. Not so with this book. The book so far reveals things about the way the built environment impacts social behavior in ways that most people probably don’t think about.

Second, the book has helped me think more about the challenges that I have been facing with community organizing, specifically with communities trying to address crime and drugs in the Hawai’i. For example, one of the biggest challenges is the lack of infrastructure between community organizations and community organizations and residents. Think of military if they didn’t have communications and intelligence. Having well-trained troops, equipment and resources would matter little if the different branches could not effectively communicate and coordinate their efforts. That is very much the situation in many communities battling against crime and drugs.

I have felt that the way we have designed our communities has made communication and coordination difficult, and I’m excited by the way Jacobs’ book is shedding light on some of the these issues. (More on this later.)

I plan to use this thread as a journal or a place to keep my thoughts about the book as they happen. Of course, I welcome the input of other idiots, and I hope that will lead to stimulating discussions.

4 Responses to “The Death and Life of Great American Cities (Notes)”


  1. Aukie

    Thank you for kicking me out of the chair and up to the bookshelf.
    I have just started to read the Jane Jacobs.
    Aukie

  2. Reid

    Well, let me know what you think of it. I’m almost finished with the book.

  3. Reid

    Let’s see if I understands the key to a successful city according to Jacobs.

    Diversity of uses that mutually support each other is the key. By “uses,” I think she means the purpose(s) or reason(s) people are at a particular building or place. So for example, people may be at particular building or place to work, to reside or eat a meal. A successful place is one that has a mixture of these uses in such a way that there is almost a constant presence of people and activity. To put in more simply, a successful place a significant number of people at almost all times. To create that situation, you need a mixture of uses in a relatively concentrated fashion. Different uses will more likely draw different type of people at different times of the day. For example, if you have office space, workers will be present on the street.during lunch. If there were a school in the area with candy stores, you might have a lot of children around 2:00, etc.

    I think the other important thing is that this activity creates lively activity on the street. Streets and sidewalks are the fundmental parts of cities to Jacobs; everything happens on the street and sidewalk; we judge a city by the nature and quality of the street. If streets are safe, then we feel cities are safe as well. I generall agree with these sentiments.

    Going back to diversity of uses. There are four componets to create this condition:

    1. An area having more as many uses or functions as possible;
    2. Short streets;
    3. Mixture of old and new buildings;
    4. Relatively high concentration of people.

  4. Reid

    I’m wondering if there are any strong disagreements by urban planners, architects, etc. with the main tenets of Jacobs’ book?

    I just finished reading it, and I don’t think there is anything I strongly disagree with, at this point , at least.

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