Notes from ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities’

Written in 1961, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs is a foundational and important work on city planning. Jacobs was the Anti-Robert Moses. This book has many deep and thought-provoking ideas. I haven’t really read any other urban planning books to know how her ideas stack up. But after reading this book I felt my eyes had been open to the structure and design of cities.

If you’ve ever been interested in the design of cities you should read this book. You can pick up a copy from Amazon here.


This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding.

[Talking about North End in Boston] Instead of super-blocks, or even decently large blocks, it has very small blocks; in planning parlance it is “badly cut up with wasteful streets.”

The basic unit of city design is not the street, but the block and more particularly the super-block.

A city sidewalk by itself is nothing. It is an abstraction. It means something only in conjunction with the buildings and other uses that border it, or border other sidewalks very near it. The same might be said of streets, in the sense that they serve other purposes besides carrying wheeled traffic in their middles. Streets and their sidewalks, the main public places of a city, are its most vital organs. Think of a city and what comes to mind? Its streets. If a city’s streets look interesting, the city looks interesting; if they look dull, the city looks dull.

When people say that a city, or part of it, is dangerous or is a jungle what they mean primarily is that they do not feel safe on the sidewalks.

The reasons for Los Angeles’ high crime rates are undoubtedly complex, and at least in part obscure. But of this we can be sure: thinning out a city does not insure safety from crime and fear of crime.

Here we come up against an all-important question about any city street: How much easy opportunity does it offer to crime?

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 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 backs 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 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. Almost nobody does such a thing. Large numbers of people entertain themselves, off and on, by watching street activity.

You can’t make people use streets they have no reason to use. You can’t make people watch streets they do not want to watch.

The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts.

Impersonal city streets make anonymous people.

Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.

They do in the course of carrying their other pursuits. Planners do not seem to realize how high a ratio of adults is needed to rear children at incidental play. Nor do they seem to understand that spaces and equipment do not read children. These can be useful adjuncts, but only people rear children and assimilate into civilized society.

My own experience is that, apart from the special habitat of intellectuals like Oxford or Cambridge, a city of a million is required to give me, say, the twenty or thirty congenial friends I require.

A city’s very wholeness is bringing together people with communities of interest is one of it’s greatest assets, possibly the greatest. And, in turn, one of the assets a city district needs is people with access to the political, the administrative, and the special interest communities of the city as a whole.

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 theis street fabric; use them to intensify and knit together the fabric’s complexity and multiple use. They should not be used to island off different uses from each other, or to island off subdistrict neighborhoods.

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

In a very big city, populations must therefore be dense to achieve successful districts; otherwise, sufficient political power is never reconciled with viable geographic identity.

Even a ghetto, after it has remained a ghetto for a period of time builds up its social structure and this makes for more stability, more leadership, more agencies for helping the solution of public problems.

“I have often amused myself,” wrote James Boswell in 1791, “with thinking how different a place London is to different people.”

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 a sufficiently dense concentration of people, for whatever purposes they may be there. This includes dense concentration in the case 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.

On successful city streets, people must appear at different times.

Ideas and money that ought to meet, and do so often only by happenstance in a place of central vitality, fail to meet.

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

Long blocks also thwart the principle that if city mixtures of use are are to be more than a fiction on maps, they must result in different people, bent on different purposes, appearing at different times, but using the same streets.

The district must mingle building that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones.

City character is blurred until every place becomes more like every other place, all adding up to Noplace.

We need art, in the arrangments of cities as well as in the other realms of life, to help explain life to us, to show us meanings, to illuminate the relationship between the life that each of us embodies and the life outside of us.

A city is not put together like a mammal or a steel frame building – or even like a honeycomb or coral. A city’s very structure consists of mixture of uses, and we get closest to its structural secrets when we deal with the conditions that generate diversity.

The botanist Edgar Anderson has written wittily and sensitively in Landscape organize from time to time about cities as a form of nature. “Over much of the world,” he comments, “man has been accepted as a city-loving creature,” Nature watching, he points out, “is quite as easy in the city as in the coutnry; all one has to do is accept Man as part of Nature.

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