The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Jane Jacobs, 1961
As an Australian, I'm used to living in the land that urbanism forgot. Australian cities were mostly founded in the post-industrial age, unconstrained by the tightness of medieval city walls or the cost of purchasing land from local owners (Australia does not have a great history when it comes to respecting indigenous land rights). Moreover, the vast majority of Australia's development has taken place in the post-automobile era, and after removing pseudostates like Luxembourg, we rank third in the world for motor vehicles per capita. All of this combines to give Australia some of the lowest density, least walkable, least mixed use cities in the world. Sydney, where I both Dunlop and I have formerly lived, has become a global laughing stock, a shining example of some of the most regressive (and outright corrupt) urban design on the planet, and there seems to be little political will to change any of this.
Of course, this last paragraph begs the question. We need a model of good urban design before we can suppose to point out poor examples. From whence does that model come? Countless restatements of that question have come to the same answer: it comes from The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
Such is the impact of Death and Life that, to paraphrase Whitehead, it is not entirely unfair to say that all work on urban planning since 1961 can best be characterised as a series of footnotes to Jacobs. Death and Life came after decades of urban planning as a branch of architecture, the focus on the majestic skyscrapers rather than the slums left in their shadows, the grand highways and bridges built with no attention paid to the communities that stood in their way. Nobody personified this tradition more than Robert Moses (The Power Broker, Caro's famous biography of Moses, is high on my list), the modernist master builder of New York City. Originally a broadside against this architectural model of urban design, Death and Life retains its importance more than half a century after its initial publication and remains the bedrock that a great deal of urban theory is still rooted in today.
The power of Jacobs's sociological approach to urban planning owes largely to her unique style, which breezily wanders between poetic anthropology and detailed engineering. The radicalism of Death and Life stems from the chapters written simply ex visu of urban life, the descriptions of the delicate 'sidewalk ballet' observable from the author's stoop. Yet Jacobs is no hopeless romantic, and the book would not have nearly the same impact if not for the work elucidating the finer points of housing project finance and red light timing systems, and this dual approach is one of the many features that makes the book a classic. The dualism of this method cements the core thesis: Urban planning must acknowledge the impact of the environment on the communities within it, without devolving into nothing but the tectonic study of the built environment.
Of course, Death and Life is more than simply style subsuming substance. The other feature that made it a classic is the raw fact that it was a truly pathbreaking book for urban planning, introducing a number of insights that seemed radical at the time, but are seen as thoroughly commonsense today. Like a Schrödinger for the urban planning profession, Jacobs is one of the first people to actually elucidate the issue of what is a city, and why it matters. Unlike suburbs or small towns, cities are, by definition, full of strangers. Any attempt to replicate more primitive communities in a modern city is bound to either fail entirely, or to shatter the totality of the city into little more than a disappointing assortment of monotonous distinct suburbs, sharing little more than having their offices all located in the same place (this being the approach favoured in places such as Los Angeles, or Australia).
Rebelling from this prescription for failure, Jacobs makes an impassioned case for the value of a vibrant city of strangers. None of the answers to the greatest questions facing our species have ever come, or will ever come, out of the desolate homogeneity of suburbia. The rich tapestry of a diverse community of strangers not only allows us to broaden our horizons, it frees us from our uniform allotments of race and class, from the entanglements and embarrassments of having every neighbour know our every move. If we side with Fromm on the last point, the conclusion is clear: Stadtluft macht frei, as much as it ever did.
Once we sight the vista that we're seeking, the question naturally turns to one of navigation, and it's at this point that Death and Life gains the technocratic balance that made it a classic. Jacobs identifies that the central feature of a city, the places where its citizens interact freely and without barrier, are not its buildings or blocks, but its streets. She paints an inspiring vision of the 'sidewalk ballet', of all kinds of people coming and going at all times of the day, heading to every destination imaginable, for every reason imaginable. The entire complexity of every want and need of our species, not the regimented march of office workers observed in the suburbs. This, in a scene, is the vitality of the city. To this end, the single most important attribute for any city is mixed use, and the most lasting section of Death and Life is Jacobs's discussion on how to bring this about.
In order to have true mixed use, every part of a city must serve at least two primary functions, to be a destination for people at all times of the day. Note the importance of being a destination, somewhere that people actively seek out. A residential suburb with a few shops that serve only the local residents is not a mixed use district. The partitioned city, the post-automobile zoning model of cleaving cities into cores of offices surrounded by sprawling suburbs is the single worst way we could build a community, and yet it's the way we build cities all over the world.
In the partitioned city, business districts are left desolate and dangerous on nights and weekends, with no crowds on the street to deter would-be criminals. Government subsidised mortgages encourage developers to build oceans of monotonous housing developments, further and further away from the urban core. Pheidippidean distances eradicate natural human powered mobility, and anaemic population density makes public transport infeasible. The suburban population readily gorges on deadly cars and toxic oil (both eagerly subsidised by national governments), spewing poison into the air and propping up petro-despots around the globe. Strict delineation of single-use districts gives way to predictable transport patterns, quickly codified into eight-lane highways and damn the (predominately poor) communities who must be bulldozed to clear the path. The vast majority of citizens move around by cars, dangerous steel boxes (hermetically sealed to protect them from the exhaust of the other cars) and are wholly excluded from the human contact with strangers that is supposed to define a city. Most retail and entertainment takes place in suburban shopping centres, pre-fab monoliths protruding from the tarmac wasteland of parking spaces that feed them. Built solely for convenience, never a true destination in their own right, these shopping centres stand abandoned most of the week, and survive only on brief rushes of traffic during weekends and late night shopping. The only businesses that can survive in this environment are the economy-of-scale, low-cost, high-turnover, no-risk megachains.
Now that last paragraph (and perhaps a few of those before it) may seem extreme, and I'll admit that there's a certain atavistic reward to polemic. But it also contains the filament that burns on every single page of Death and Life: Cities matter. From technological progress, to climate change and petro-dictators, through to obesity or the simple struggle of finding a decent cup of coffee, cities matter. Jane Jacobs not only recognised that, she had an extraordinary vision of what to do about it. And at a time when more than half the people in the world live in them, it's not a message we can afford to ignore any longer.
Shout out to Abbeys's Books in Sydney, where I picked this up, and many thanks to Dunlop, who first introduced me to it.