Author's Corner


Jane Jacobs
Independent Author, Observer and Planning Critic

Author of
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Random House, New York, 1961
Jane Jacobs was born on May 4, 1916, in Scranton, Pennsylvania.* Her father was a physician and her mother taught school and worked as a nurse. After high school and a year spent as a reporter on the Scranton Tribune, Jacobs went to New York, where she found a succession of jobs as a stenographer and wrote free-lance articles about the city’s many working districts, which fascinated her. In 1952, after a number of writing and editing jobs ranging in subject matter from metallurgy to a geography of the United States for foreign readers, she became an associate editor of Architectural Forum. She was becoming increasingly skeptical of conventional planning beliefs as she noticed that the city rebuilding projects she was assigned to write about seemed neither safe, interesting, alive, nor good economics for cities once the projects were built and in operation. She gave a speech to that effect at Harvard in 1956, and this led to an article in Fortune magazine entitled "Downtown Is for People," which in turn led to The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book was published in 1961 and produced permanent changes in the debate over urban renewal and the future of cities.

Thirty years after its publication, The Death and Life of Great American Cities was described by The New York Times as "perhaps the most influential single work in the history of town planning....[It] can also be seen in a much larger context. It is first of all a work of literature; the descriptions of street life as a kind of ballet and the bitingly satiric account of traditional planning theory can still be read for pleasure even by those who long ago absorbed and appropriated the book's arguments."

Mrs. Jacobs is widely recognized as one of the founders of the "new urbanism", a movement which has over the intervening years gained growing prominence as an alternative to conventional approaches to land use and transportation planning.* Death and Life, her first book, was published in 1961 at the height of the technocratic projects led by powerful architects and city planners which were then pillorying the central areas of America's cities. Her book challenged planners and decision-makers to retain common sense, careful observation, and personal experience as the basis for their work. Rigorous, sane, and delightfully epigrammatic, Jacobs's small masterpiece is a blueprint for the humanistic management of cities. It is sensible, knowledgeable, readable, indispensable. She made her central point in these words:

"The processes that occur in our cities are not arcane, capable of being understood only by experts. They can be understood by almost anybody. Many ordinary people already understand this; they simply have not considered that by understanding these ordinary arrangements of cause and effect, we can also direct them if we want to."

But she did not stop there. For close to half a century Mrs. Jacobs has championed the city as a natural and vital human habitat which brings together people in sufficient concentrations for the flourishing of commerce, culture and community. She emphasizes the necessity of protecting, what she calls, the "social capital" of the city: that intricate web of human relationships built up over time and that provides mutual support in time of need, ensures the safety of the streets, and fosters a sense of civic responsibility.

In this great book Mrs. Jacobs captures the life of traditional cities, much as an anthropologist records the characteristics of a culture on the verge of extinction, for understanding by later generations. The great and enduring value of her book is its powerful description of the human reality and dynamic behind the theories and visions and the necessity of understanding these in order to plan successfully for communities and transportation systems.She makes the point that two things are central to maintaining the social capital of any place:

  1. A great deal of diversity at the neighborhood level so that people can remain in their local area even as their housing needs, jobs, and lifestyles may change; and

  2. Agreeable, esliy accessibe settings for casual public contact, including good sidewalks, public spaces, and neighbourhood stores.

Jacobs was an early and prescient voice warning that what was being billed as urban renewal--big housing projects, highway building, creation of business districts, etc.--was actually destroying neighborhoods and creating more problems than it was solving. Subsequent events of the past forty years have certainly borne out her argument that the planners were killing cities. But she did not stop there: she then showed the way as to how we can start to do better, step by small step. That and her personal example are what make her so very important as we look to the future.

For more see Encyclopaedia Britannica entry on Jane Jacobs
Bibliography of published work

A Note from The Commons

Over the decades that The Commons has been soldiering away at its self-assigned task of promoting sustainable development and social justice wherever we can make our voice heard, as often as not in the context of cities and transportation, Mrs. Jacobs has served as one of the unofficial patron saints of our movement. And in addition to all her fine print contributions, there is another, more personal side of her story which is perhaps not altogether out of place to mention here.

It was 1959 and the author of this piece, along with his fellow member of The Commons, Wolfgang Zuckermann (himself author of the 1991 book "End of the Road: The World Car Crisis and How We can Solve it"), found themselves part of a pick-up group of residents of the Greenwich Village section of New York City protesting and eventually succeeding in blocking a proposed 'modern highway' that was intended to extend right though the middle of Washington Square Park, pretty much destroying it in the process. The highway plan was one of many such "expert-based" technocratic projects orchestrated by the park commissioner and planning czar of New York at the time, the fabled Robert Moses. Mrs. Jacobs not only documents this rare successful early 'car free' project, but also was one of the key active participants in the movement. She wrote of the Moses project that it was "an irresponsible boondoggle which will gratuitously jeopardize a sound and healthy community composed of people with a great love and pride of neighborhood."

And this is the point that we wish to stress here in the context of an initiative such as Earth Car Free Day, which asks the, in her words, "ordinary people" of our civilization, writers and intellectuals included, to climb out of their comfortable armchairs and join us in the streets to show the way. Mrs. Jacobs has over the years not only talked the talk but also walked the walk: she has repeatedly spoken up at public meetings, written high profile letters to the editor setting out her often contentious views, been accused of setting off riots by her mere presence in the street, and been arrested by the police as an activist expressing on the street her opposition to socially destrcutive projects of out of touch planners and politicians. I don't know if she is familir with these exact words of Gandhi, but she certainly has lived them: "We must be the change we wish to see".

Eric Britton, 27 January 2001, The Commons, Paris

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Author commentary on Earth Car Free Day 2001

We asked the ever vivacious Toronto activist Ms. Sue Zielinski to cycle over to Mrs. Jacobs house in an attempt to sound her out concerning her views on the kind of on-the-street approach that ECFD is taking, warts and all. Here is what Sue got:

--- Interview to follow ---

Jane Jacobs, Toronto, February 2001

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Extracts from "Death and Life of Great American Cities"

"Automobiles are often conveniently tagged as the villains responsible for the ills of cities and the disappointments and futilities of city planning. But the destructive effects of automobiles are much less a cause than a symptom of our incompetence at city building . . .

The simple needs of automobiles are more easily understood and satisfied than the complex needs of cities, and a growing number of planners and designers have come to believe that if they can only solve the problems of traffic, they will thereby have solved the major problems of cities. Cities have much more intricate economic and social concerns than automobile traffic. How can you know what to try with traffic until you know how the city itself works, and what else it needs to do with its streets? You can't."

The uses of sidewalks: safety

"If we are to maintain a city society that can diagnose and keep abreast of deeper social problems, the starting point must be, in any case, to strengthen whatever workable forces for maintaining safety and civilization do exist -- in the cities we do have. ... The first thing to understand is that the public peace -- the sidewalk and street peace -- of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves. .... No amount of policing can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down." (32)

"A well-used city street is apt to be a safe street. A deserted city street is apt to be unsafe. But how does this work, really? And what makes a city street well used or shunned? ... A city street equipped to handle strangers, and to make a safety asset, in itself, out of the presence of strangers, as the streets of successful city neighborhoods always do, must have three main qualities:

"First, there must be a clear demarcation between what is public space and what is private space. Public space and private spaces cannot ooze into each other as they do typically in suburban settings or in projects.

"Second, there must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their back or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

"And third, the sidewalk must have users on it fairly continuously, both to add to the number of effective eyes on the street and to induce the people in buildings along the street to watch the sidewalks in sufficient numbers. Nobody enjoys sitting on a stoop or looking out a window at an empty street. ... Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity. (35)

"The basic requisite for such surveillance is a substantial quantity of stores and other public places sprinkled along the sidewalks of a district; enterprises and public places that are used by evening and night must be among them especially. Stores, bars and restaurants, as the chief examples, work in several different and complex ways to abet sidewalk safety.

"First, they give people -- both residents and strangers -- concrete reasons for using the sidewalks on which the enterprises face.

"Second, they draw people along the sidewalks past places which have no attractions to public use in themselves... Moreover, there should be many different kinds of enterprises, to give people reasons for crisscrossing paths.

"Third, storekeepers and other small businessmen are typically strong proponents of peace and order themselves; ... they are great street watchers and sidewalk guardians if present in sufficient numbers.

"Fourth, the activity generated by people on errands, or people aiming for food or drink, is itself an attraction to still other people. (36-37)

The uses of sidewalks: contact

"The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by a the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop, eying the girls while waiting to be called for dinner, admonishing the children, hearing about a job from the hardware man and borrowing a dollar from the druggist, admiring the new babies and sympathizing over the way a coat faded.

"Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level-- most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone -- is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. (56)

"A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people around. This balance is largely made up of small, sensitively managed details... (59)

The uses of sidewalks: assimilating children

"Children in cities need a variety of places in which to play and to learn. They need, among other things, opportunities for all kinds of sports and exercise and physical skills ... However, at the same time, they need an unspecialized outdoor home base from which to play, to hang around in, and to help form their notions of the world.

"It is this form of unspecialized play that the sidewalks serve -- and that lively city sidewalks can serve splendidly. ... The people of cities who have other jobs and duties ... can, and on lively diversified sidewalks they do, supervise the incidental play of children and assimilate the children into city society. They do it in the course of carrying on their other pursuits. ... It is folly to build cities in a way that wastes this normal, casual manpower for childrearing and either leaves this essential job too much undone -- with terrible consequences -- or makes it necessary to hire substitutes. (82)

"In real life, only from the ordinary adults of the city sidewalk do children learn -- if they learn at all -- the first fundamental of successful city life: People must take a modicum of public responsibility for each other even if they have no ties to each other.

"Sidewalks thirty or thirty-five feet wide can accommodate virtually any demand of incidental play put upon them -- with trees to shade the activities, and sufficient space for pedestrian circulation and adult public sidewalk life and loitering. Few sidewalks of this luxurious width can be found. Sidewalk width is invariably sacrificed for vehicular width, partly because city sidewalks are conventionally considered to be purely space for pedestrian travel and access to buildings, and go unrecognized and unrespected as the uniquely vital and irreplaceable organs of city safety, public life and child rearing that they are. (87)

The uses of city neighborhoods

"Looking at city neighborhoods as organs of self-government, I can see evidence that only three kinds of neighborhoods are useful: (1) the city as a whole; (2) street neighborhoods; (3) districts of large subcity size, composed of 100,000 people or more in the case of the largest cities. (117)

"Effective neighborhood physical planning for cities should aim at these purposes:

First, to foster lively and interesting streets.

Second, to make the fabric of these streets as continuous a network as possible throughout a district of potential subcity size and power.

Third, to use parks and squares and public buildings as part of this street fabric;

Fourth, to emphasize the functional identity of areas large enough to work as districts. (129)

"Here is a seeming paradox: To maintain in a neighborhood sufficient people who stay put, a city must have... fluidity and mobility of use ... Over intervals of time, many people change their jobs and the locations of their jobs, shift or enlarge their outside friendships and interests, change their family sizes, change their incomes up or down, even change many of their tastes. ... If they live in diversified, rather than monotonous districts -- in districts, particularly where many details of physical change can constantly be accommodated -- and if they like the place, they can stay put despite changes in the location or nature of their other pursuits or interests. ... city people need not pull up stakes for such reasons. (139)

The generators of diversity

"To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable:

1. The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.

2. Most blocks must be short; that is, streets and opportunities to turn corners must be frequent.

3. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition; including a good proportion of old ones so that they vary in the economic yield they must produce. This mingling must be fairly close-grained.

4. There must be sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentrations ... of people who are there because of residence.

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. (151)

Some myths about diversity

"Lack of wide ranges of concentrated diversity can put people into automobiles for almost all their needs. The spaces required for roads and for parking spread everything out still farther, and lead to still greater uses of vehicles. This is tolerable where the population is thinly spread. It becomes an intolerable condition, destructive of all other values and all other aspects of convenience, where populations are heavy or continuous.

"In dense, diversified city areas, people still walk, an activity that is impractical in suburbs and in most grey areas. The more intensely various and close-grained the diversity in an area, the more walking. Even people who come into a lively, diverse area from outside, whether by car or by public transportation, walk when they get there. (230)

Erosion of Cities or attrition of automobiles

"Too much dependence on private automobiles and city concentration of use are incompatible. One or the other has to give.

"Erosion of cities by automobiles entails so familiar a series of events that these hardly need describing. The erosion proceeds as a kind of nibbling ... Because of vehicular congestion, a street is widened here, another is straightened there, a wide avenue is converted to one-way flow, staggered-signal systems are installed for faster movement, a bridge is double-decked ..., an expressway is cut through yonder, and finally whole webs of expressways. More and more land goes into parking, to accommodate the ever increasing numbers of vehicles while they are idle. ... (349)

"Cumulatively the effect is enormous. and each step ... is crucial in the sense that it not only adds its own bit to the total change, but actually accelerates the process. Erosion of cities by automobiles is thus an example of what is know as "positive feedback." In cases of positive feedback, an action produces a reaction which in turn intensifies the condition responsible for the first action. This intensifies the need for repeating the first action, which in turn intensifies the reaction, and so on ... It is something like the grip of a habit-forming addiction. (350)

"Attrition of automobiles operates by making conditions less convenient for cars. Attrition as a steady gradual process ... would steadily decrease the numbers of persons using private automobiles in a city. If properly carried out -- as one aspect of stimulating diversity and intensifying city use -- attrition would decrease the need for cars, much as, in reverse, erosion increases need for cars simultaneously increasing convenience for cars.

"In real life ... attrition of automobiles by cities is probably the only realistic means by which better public transportation can be stimulated, and greater intensity and vitality of city use be simultaneously fostered and accommodated.

"However, a strategy of attrition of automobiles by cities cannot be arbitrary or negative. Nor is such a policy capable of giving dramatic results suddenly. Although its cumulative effects should be revolutionary, like any strategy aimed at keeping things working it has to be engaged as a form of evolution. ... Tactics are suitable which give room to other necessary and desired city uses that happen to be in competition with automobile traffic needs.

"Consider, for example, the problem of accommodating the sidewalk uses, from outdoor store displays to children's play, that people attempt in popular streets. These need broad sidewalks. In addition, double rows of trees might be splendid on some sidewalks. An attrition tactician would look for sidewalks getting heavy use or various use, and would seek to widen and enhance them as a gain for city life. Automatically, this would narrow the vehicular roadbed.

"If and when our cities learn to foster deliberately the four basic generators of diversity, popular and interesting streets will grow ever more numerous. As soon as such streets, by their use, earn sidewalk widening, it should be offered. Where would the money come from? From the same place the money now comes that is misapplied to sidewalk narrowing. ... Small parks could be carried across a street, thereby creating dead ends. These would still permit, from either direction, vehicular service access to a street. Aside from these and other variants of intrusion on roadbed space, shorter blocks ... also interfere with traffic flow. (364)

"Possibilities for adding to convenience, intensity and cheer in cities, while simultaneously hampering automobiles, are limitless. Today we automatically, if sometimes regretfully, rule out most amenities -- to say nothing of pure functional necessities like easy and frequent pedestrian crossings -- because these are in conflict with the voracious and insatiable needs of automobiles. The conflict is real. These is no need to invent such tactics artificially.

"Utterly unselective attrition of vehicles could be, in many streets, as discouraging to trucks and to buses as to private automobiles. Trucks and buses are themselves important manifestations of city intensity and concentration. And as I shall soon indicate, if their efficiency is encouraged, this too results in further attrition of automobiles, as a side effect. (365) Trucks are vital to cities. They mean service. They mean jobs. .... Where streets are narrowed or bottlenecked to the point that a choice must be made as to what vehicles can use them, precedence can go to trucks, with other vehicles permitted only if they are making (passenger) deliveries or pickups. Meantime, the fastest lanes in multilane arteries or on wide avenues could be reserved for trucks only. ... As between taxis and private passenger automobiles, inadequate parking selectively favors taxis. (368)

"It is understandable that men who were young in the 1920's were captivated by the vision of the freeway Radiant City, with the specious promise that it would be appropriate to an automobile age. At least it was then a new idea; ... it was radical and exciting in the days when their minds were growing and their ideas forming. Some men tend to cling to old intellectual excitements, just as some belles, when they are old ladies, still cling to the fashions and coiffures of their exciting youth. But it is harder to understand why this form of arrested mental development should be passed on intact to succeeding generations of planners and designers. It is disturbing to think that men who are young today, men who are being trained now for their careers, should accept on the grounds that they must be "modern" in their thinking, conceptions about cities and traffic which are not only unworkable, but also to which nothing new of any significance has been added since their fathers were children. (371)

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Is that all?

Views and Opinions

If you want some variety of opinion of the subject of this book, you may wish to have a look at some of the following reviews and commentaries which, as you will see, provide quite a nice spread...

To order:
Death and Life of Great American Cities can be ordered from your local bookseller. Or, should you be out of an English language area or otherwise prefer, you can also order directly from:

* Portions of the text of the above bio note were taken from the publisher's forward to the Modern Library edition of the book, and a paper submitted by Joell Vanderwagen on June 26, 1995 to the Ontario Round Table on Environment and Economy, Transportation and Climate Change. Kindthtanks to all.

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