The Death and Life of Great American Cities  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs, is a greatly influential book on the subject of urban planning in the 20th century. First published in 1961, the book is a critique of modernist planning policies claimed by Jacobs to be destroying many existing inner-city communities.

Reserving her most vitriolic criticism for the "rationalist" planners (specifically Robert Moses) of the 1950s and 1960s, Jacobs argued that modernist urban planning rejects the city, because it rejects human beings living in a community characterized by layered complexity and seeming chaos. The modernist planners used deductive reasoning to find principles by which to plan cities. Among these policies the most violent was urban renewal; the most prevalent was and is the separation of uses (i.e. residential, industrial, commercial). These policies, she claimed, destroy communities and innovative economies by creating isolated, unnatural urban spaces.

In their place Jacobs advocated for "four generators of diversity", writing on page 151, "The necessity for these four conditions is the most important point this book has to make. In combination, these conditions create effective economic pools of use."

  • Mixed uses, activating streets at different times of the day
  • Short blocks, allowing high pedestrian permeability.
  • Buildings of various ages & states of repair.
  • Density.

Her aesthetic can be considered opposite to that of the modernists, upholding redundancy and vibrancy, against order and efficiency. She frequently cites New York City's Greenwich Village as an example of a vibrant urban community. The Village, like many similar communities, may well have been preserved, at least in part, by her writing and activism. The book also played a major role in the urban development of Toronto in Canada, where Jacobs was involved in the campaign to stop the Spadina Expressway.

The book continues to be Jacobs' most influential, and is still widely read by both planning professionals and the general public. It has been translated into six languages and sold over a quarter million copies. Urban theorist Lewis Mumford, while finding fault with her methodology, encouraged Jacobs' early writings in the New York Review of Books. Robert Caro has cited Jacobs' book as the strongest influence on The Power Broker, his biography of Robert Moses.

Jacobs' writings were an important influence on New Urbanism, an architecture and planning movement which emerged in the 1980s.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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