It may seem strange to review a book, especially nonfiction, written over a half-century ago. The topics covered by Jane Jacobs (1916–2006), however, are just as relevant today as when she started covering them in the mid-20th century. In that respect, I find reading her today equally fascinating and depressing.
All the problems she identified have gotten much worse and there’s little evidence of things turning around. That said, this isn’t going to be less a traditional review of the book but a commentary on how the issues Jane Jacobs raised so long ago are still worth discussing. I will, however, offer a summary of Jacobs’ ideas.
What Jane Jacobs Believed About Cities
Jane Jacobs was born in a rural area but spent most of her life in New York City (Greenwich Village), and later Toronto. The following are some key points of The Death and Life of Great American Cities:
- Traditional planners of modern times (early to mid-20th century) such as Lewis Mumford and Le Corbusier actually had an anti-city bias. They wanted to refashion modern cities into utopias based on rural and pastoral models such as “Garden Cities” and “City Beautiful.” Most of these planners also had a rigid and dogmatic view of how people should live.
- Sidewalks are one of the most essential elements of cities. For blocks and neighborhoods to be lively and safe, sidewalks must be convenient for pedestrians and also wide enough for other activities such as children playing. Sidewalks should also be visible from nearby homes and apartments to provide eyes on the streets.
- Diversity is a crucial element for lively and safe neighborhoods. When Jacobs spoke about diversity, she wasn’t using it in the typical modern sense of people from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds (though this could be present as well) but diverse in terms of occupation, schedules, and reasons to be walking around a neighborhood. For example, a park needs diverse populations who walk through it at all hours. Otherwise it may be busy at certain times and deserted at others.
- Typical solutions to slums often have the opposite effect as intended. Jacobs focuses in particular on the way poor urban dwellers are often subjected to “slum shifting,” moved from…