The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been on my to-be-read list for awhile. Jacobs was a journalist, lobbyist, and activist from New York City. She offered innovative tactics regarding city planning. Her efforts preserved Greenwich Village and rescinded a planned expressway through Lower Manhattan. A number of topics are discussed in this book – the purpose and safety of sidewalks and parks, slums, traffic and pedestrians, and city blight. This blog will focus on the subject of city diversity and conditions necessary for creating such variance.

Jacobs argued that four conditions were required to generate and sustain healthy neighbourhoods and cities. The first condition suggests that a district must serve more than one primary function. Additional commercial services draw in not only workers and residents from the area, but also attracts visitors. More important than the concentration of people is their purpose and itinerary. “[Mixed primary uses] insures the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.” This mixing of people creates an extensive base of diverse consumers who support businesses and therefore the neighbourhood.

The second prerequisite is short, walkable city blocks. “Frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use they permit…” When citizens’ typically long, separated routes come together, they have more opportunities to mingle. An economic pool of use is then formed, again supporting enterprises in their community.

Prerequisite three – “The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition.” New builds can only support companies capable of paying for such high overhead. This includes grocery stores, banks, and chain stores. Older buildings provide reasonable-priced property for smaller scale businesses like used book stores, local restaurants, art galleries, and hair salons.

The final condition is the need for “a sufficiently, dense population of people.” Jacobs is clear that high density doesn’t mean overcrowding. Cities require a healthy concentration of people to support the services in their neighbourhood. Such density is “desirable because [it is] the source of immense vitality” and creates “a visibly lively public street life.”

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

  1. So what was her overall conclusion about cities or did she reach any conclusion? As to the short blocks, I prefer long blocks that make it easier to go for walks runs and that sort of thing without constantly stopping. I also wish there were more amenities close by. I live in a 25 year old part of a city and there is nothing besides the local schools that is within a comfortable walking distance.

    1. Her main theme was diversity. City neighbourhoods must have serve several purposes – i.e: commercial and residential. This way there is always a draw to the area, a variety of people using the space throughout the day. A busy district also ensures public safety and interactions between its users.

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