Review Michèle Champagne

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

A brief review of Jane Jacobs' legendary book

Jane Jacobs takes a brash and insightful view of American cities and 20th century modernist urban planning.


Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York - Source [All of the criteria for the report card have been distilled from Jane Jacobs' book Source]

Jane Jacobs was brash. Her legendary book The Death and Life of Great American Cities was written in a way best characterized as raw, aggressive and full of vitality. And no wonder.

The year was 1961, and American cities were still under the destructive spell of modernist urban planning (aren't they still?). These were the days of Le Corbusier-style reductionist, rationalist thinking and Robert Moses in New York City: when poor people were segregated into self-isolating downtown mega-blocks, rich people fled to self-isolating surburban communities, and super-highways plowed through and divided inner-city neighbourhoods. Safety dwindled. Community disintegrated. And Jacobs knew it. So she wrote a tour-de-force book about it.

Jane Jacobs was insightful. The Death and Life of Great American Cities can also be characterized as having great insight into what cities need in order to to be more gracious, safe and efficient. Jacobs was no academic scholar, but she was a true journalist blending scientific rigor with everyday observations from the street.

The four main insights espoused by Jacobs in her book are:

01. Cities need to engage mixed-use planning that ensures people use the outdoors on different times of the day and use facilities available in common.

02. Cities should build streets with short blocks, creating frequent opportunities to cross streets, turn corners and encounter neighbours.

03. Cities should encourage architectural diversity, with a good mingling of buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.

04. Cities should be sufficiently dense with people, which should include people who are present because of residence.