“Death and Life” Lives !!


Jane Jacobs wrote one of the most influential urban affairs books of the twentieth century.

“Death and Life of Great American Cities” — published in 1961 — has become a talisman, cited by many and sundry to advance their views and proposals. Jacobs, who died in 2006, is an icon of the field, and her views have become “the common wisdom of our time,” says Paul Goldberger, a prominent architecture critic. 

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of “Death and Life,” it’s surely time now to think freshly and skeptically about her ideas. We don’t need more acolytes of Jane Jacobs; we need people who will think as hard and as well as she did about “the kind of problem a city is.”

The very first paragraph of “Death and Life” promises “an attack on the principles and aims that have shaped modern orthodox city planning and rebuilding.” At mid-century, that orthodoxy included urban renewal and highway construction, and it was carried out through such elements as big projects, separation of uses, and “blight” designations followed by clearance. Jacobs’ writing and her activism in New York City’s Greenwich Village contributed immensely to the unraveling —but not the disappearance — of that approach.  The book bristles with pointed criticisms and sharp analyses that aim to burst the modernist orthodoxy. 

It’s a wonderful book, strongly written, and well-worth reading today. 

More people should read the book before they cite Jacobs as an ally for their projects. One recent writer confessed to relying on second- and third-hand sources and to referencing “Death and Life” in support of “whatever I was working on.” Upon actually reading the book, she concluded that the “New Urbanism” movement’s implied claim to Jacobs’ approval is unwarranted. 

We now need studies that follow Jacobs’ advice: closely observed, fearless studies of the way things do or don’t function on the ground in big cities and also in towns, suburbs and little cities, and regions. 

To read the whole column—  “Emerging Issues: Wrestling with Jane Jacobs,” go to the icon for the June 21 issue of Nation’s Cities Weekly on the NLC homepage, www.nlc.org.

3 comments on ““Death and Life” Lives !!”

  1. Yup.
    “Cities and the wealth of Nations” is still worth reading; seminal for cityregion folks. Jacobs is like everyone else— right about some things and totally off base and wrong about others. Most of us don’t even get to that point. As Charlie Brown said when Lucy told him “well, you win some and you lose some”— “Gee that would be nice”.
    But the point of my essay was that Jacobs was an excellent observer and a hard thinker and not afraid of new ideas. We’d all be better off if the folks that appear as public intellectuals would have those characteristics.
    Bill Barnes

  2. And what about the rest of her writings? She didn’t stop covering cities and how they work in 1962. Cities are the main focus of her writings all the way through her last book.

    I’ve asked people with degrees in Economic Development and Public Policy about Jacobs’ other books… it turns out they’re treated the same way in their professions: the books are really good to read and quote and think about, but nobody in their right minds actually does things the way Jacobs suggested. That just isn’t what we do… whether it’s city-building or otherwise.

  3. Terrific that you are focusing on what Jacobs actually wrote or said vs. what many people think she said. She has been so misappropriated that it undermines the true value of her observations.
    For example, what planners and developers celebrate as mixed use is not what she had in mind at all. They have conveniently extracted the useful pieces of a much more complex notion that includes light manufacturing, start ups, local businesses, institutions and a broad serendipitous mix of activities that reflect true urbanism, not a conveniently “controlled” mix.
    And she didn’t advocate low-scale but context, not just old buildings but infill and layers of development reflecting the organic evolution of a city.
    And she didn’t oppose all big development, nor all government action.
    I’ve tried to spotlight how both hers and Robert Moses’ impact shaped New York and all American cities in my new book, The Battle For Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. I hope this contributes to clarifying the contribution.
    Roberta Brandes Gratz

Comments are closed.