The Daily Parker

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

I've just finished Jane Jacobs' foundational work on urban planning. I first came across the book in 2010, started reading it in May, then put it down and picked it up a few times.

In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published 51 years ago, Jacobs demolished the philosophy of urban planning that had prevailed since the 1920s. The Cabrini Green housing projects, massively disruptive road-building like the Dan Ryan and Congress Expressways, and a way of top-down analysis that looked at thriving neighborhoods like Boston's North End as slums, all exemplified post-war urban planning; Jacobs tried to reverse it.

Some things that stood out:

[One] category of uses is conventionally considered, by planners and zoners, to be harmful, especially if these uses are mingled into residential areas. This category includes bars, theaters, clinics, businesses and manufacturing. It is a category which is not harful; the arguments that these uses are to be tightly controlled derive from their effects in suburbs and in dull, inherently dangerous gray areas, not from their effects in lively city districts.

For example: a shopping mall surrounded by parking lots has a few restaurants attached to it. Who wants to walk to these restaurants? How likely are people to linger there, or to happen upon a previously-unknown, independent night spot? Contrast that with, say, North Clark Street in Chicago, where a person can walk for almost 30 blocks, from Lincoln Avenue (1800 N) up to Irving Park Road (4000 N), and never be more than a few meters from a restaurant, a bar, an interesting shop, or a three-flat. In fact, the restaurants and shops often occupy the ground floors of the three-flats. As Jacobs writes, along a street like that, people are always around, throughout the day, living their lives—unlike in the suburbs, where shops close and the area is deserted.

Or this, in the chapter "Gradual money and cataclysmic money," in which she takes on blacklisting and slum clearing:

The immense new suburban sprawls of American cities have not come about by accident—and still less by the myth of free choice between cities and suburbs. Endless suburban sprawl was made practical (and for many families was actually mandatory) through the creation of something the United States lacked until the mid-1930s: a national morgage market specifically calculated to encourage suburban home building. ...

City people finance the building of suburbs. To be sure, one of the historic missions of cities, those marvelously productive and efficient places, is to finance colonization.

But you can run anything into the ground.

Fortunately, over the past 50 years, communities and their planners have listened to Jacobs. She herself worked tirelessly (and successfully) to prevent Robert Moses from destroying SoHo and Chinatown with the Lower Manhattan Expressway.

I should note, I put the book down several times because it made me mad—not at Jacobs, but at people like Le Corbusier and Robert Moses. I'm about to put Robert Caro's The Power Broker on my reading stack*, as I put Jane Jacobs next to Suburban Nation in my bookshelves.

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