The Death and Life of Great American Cities

She starts with the sidewalk.  The sidewalk, after all, is where we live most of our lives if we live in a city.  It’s where we walk, where kids play, where people congregate and look out for one another—whether they know they are doing it or not.  She tells anecdotes—the one about the boy who was rescued by strangers on the sidewalk and the one about the boy trapped in an elevator in a project who cried and cried for hours but no-one came.  The sidewalk, where people take responsibility for one another; where a community is formed; where we know our local grocer and that annoying lady next door is far safer than the projects where people—anonymous individuals—live cheek by jowl with their neighbors.

And from the point of view of the humble sidewalk, Jane Jacobs builds a kind of theory of cities: what works and what doesn’t.  She makes points that, once she makes them, are nothing more nor less than common sense.  She points out that we like interesting things and that what we, as people are most interested in, is other people.  So we like to people-watching.  And that means we need different, truly different, buildings on our sidewalks.  It just doesn’t work to have a part of the city that’s all “about culture” and another part that’s all “about business” and yet a third that’s “all about” housing.  We don’t live our lives like that and we should not expect our city to live if every aspect of human life is segregated from every other aspect.

It’s fine—no, it’s healthy—if people live next to a culture center, next to a place of worship, next to a place of business, and next to a park and playground.  It means that at all times of the day, every day of the week, you will see different and interesting people on your streets.  Sundays, you will see families dressed for church (and teenagers dressed “specially” for church); during the day on weekdays, you will see people in their business attire hurrying to and fro with their important tasks; at lunchtime you will see mothers (and these days increasingly fathers) pushing their baby strollers in the park and at night everyone gathers at the local watering holes and restaurants.  If that is what you see where you live, you live in a safe and good neighborhood.  A neighborhood where buildings are different not just because they have different paint but because they serve different functions.  And that neighborhood is great for business.  A baker, a coffee shop, a pub, a bar, a shoe repair shop—all will flourish in a neighborhood like this.

The way to destroy a city, on the other hand, is to destroy a neighborhood by transplanting it into a project.  It doesn’t matter how poor that neighborhood is.  There are people who live in that place who are genuinely attached to it.  A famous story is told (not in this book but as an example) of the Mother of all the Rothschilds not wishing to leave the Jewish Ghetto in Vienna.  That is where her friends were and that is where she wanted to live.  And no matter how poor a place seems to an outsider, people do put down roots there.  And those roots mean that they, the people who are attached to that place, can make it into a thriving, interesting neighborhood.  Just like (or even better than) the one I described just now.  All they need is a little help: loans from banks to start a business, short blocks, encouraging the kinds of uses the people want.  If there is one thing Jane Jacobs is adamant about it’s that a city is about the people who live in it and so you can’t impose a great idea on them-no matter who they are—it has to come from within the community.  Because only then will you have a community.  And given half a chance, that community will grow and will prosper.

All that, and more, is in this relatively slim (for an urban planning book) volume.  A volume that has been (rightly I think) been called a classic. Not just because of its message which is just as relevant today as it was when Jane Jacobs wrote it but because of the writing style.  Jane Jacobs is obviously well-read and well-traveled but she does not feel the need to showcase that she read a book or two once.  She writes in simple, easy-to-read prose and the lessons she teaches the reader are all the more memorable for that.

I highly recommend it.

Product Name: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Product Description: By Jane Jacobs

Offer price: $12.99

  • Writing
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