The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs


  1. This book is an attack on modern city planning and rebuilding. Modern planners refuse to learn from what has actually worked and failed, favoring short term fixes that only exacerbate the problem. We must get back to a city of diversification, of walking rather than cars. This mutually dependent and supportive structure is vital and arises from a city with varied uses, strengths, and means to support itself – functional mixing. Cities are diverse, complex, interwoven and fork organically. Any rigid structure or plan is sure to be flawed and fragile 

Key Takeaways

  1. City as Ecology
    1. City ecology, like natural ecology, requires much diversification to thrive. It arises organically without any central planning and the various species are interdependent. The more niches there are, the more carrying capacity for life exists 
    2. Rigid planning that suppressed natural order never works. Order that is allowed to emerge naturally is robust and tends to work without force
    3. City diversity permits and encourages further diversity. However, this doesn’t happen naturally but arises out of having varied pools of use to its various citizens. You must have districts that are multi use, varied old and new buildings, a dense enough concentration of people, and short blocks so that you can get on new streets quickly. This is one of the most important points in this book. With these 4 criteria, varied economic pools of use arose which creates diversity which creates a thriving city 
    4. Maximum efficiency means standardization and standardization kills creativity, diversity, and liveliness – that Which allows a city to flourish 
    5. Massive single use areas are devastating for diversity and city health but arise out of natural incentives. One type of use is very profitable and attracts more people to start the same thing. However, without feedback and a natural barrier, this runs away and is unhealthy for all involved – dialectical materialism 
  2. Importance of Streets
    1. Streets and sidewalks are the lifeblood of cities. If they’re safe and interesting, the city is safe and interesting. No amount of policing can keep a street safe where the casual self policing of the people has broken down. Streets must have clear public and private spaces, must have eyes on them by the proprietors, and must nearly always have traffic 
    2. Streets are also great places for kids to play and socialize. If properly patrolled and with enough activity they are safe. It is parks, in fact, that are most dangerous yet “garden planners” see them as the silver bullet for all evils 
  3. The Death of Cities
    1. The factors that tend to cause the destruction and downfall of cities include the diversity that a city needs to flourish eats itself, tendency for massive single influences to cast a deafening shadow over everything, tendency for population to throw things off, and tendency for public and private money to starve diversity 
    2. Slums are vicious cycles and difficult to break because cause and effect are confused as they are linked. You must break this link to break the cycle. The cycle that must break to fix slums is a massive amount of people moving out at the same time and, while they’re stuck there, dreaming of how and when they can move
    3. What is needed is gradual money that can be used and digested properly. Too much money all at once is harmful 
  4. Other
    1. Bankers, like city planners, have learned elaborate superstitions – the map- about what constitutes a slum and high risk rather than looking at the actual neighborhoods that are thriving – the terrain – to see what’s working and worth lending to. Like the pseudoscience of bloodletting, a whole structure and dogma has arisen over what works and what doesn’t in city planning. It almost sounds plausible but is built on a faulty structure 
    2. Cities are not Towns but larger. They are qualitatively different 
    3. Parks are no silver bullet but can be hugely valuable for the value and feel of a neighborhood. They need be intricate, a clear center, have a lot of sunlight, be busy enough to be safe, have multiple uses and blend different areas seamlessly, be convenient
    4. City borders are usually thought of as inert objects but they cause division and have an active influence on social, psychological, and city planning efforts – the “other side of the tracks”
    5. What is inevitable only comes about through much effort 
    6. To see complex systems as order and not chaos requires understanding 
    7. Knowing the general ideas is valuable but there is no substitution for knowing the particulars 

What I got out of it

  1. The core ideas are extremely simple and powerful. The book was too long for my care but it provided ample examples to back up her claims. Fascinating to learn more about what makes a great city and what can bring about its demise