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The Death and Life of Great American Cities at 50

Fifty years ago, discussion on the future of urban life was reshaped by the release of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities.  Today the book and its recommendations remain a hot topic among urbanism advocates, planners, architects, and sociologists–and varying interpretations still cause controversy. As Austin Bramwell writes in the October issue […]

Fifty years ago, discussion on the future of urban life was reshaped by the release of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Today the book and its recommendations remain a hot topic among urbanism advocates, planners, architects, and sociologists–and varying interpretations still cause controversy. As Austin Bramwell writes in the October issue of The American Conservative, “Since her death in 2006, Jacobs’s reputation has continued to soar. Folk hero and philosopher, author and activist, she has entered the pantheon of beloved Americans, a mid-to-late 20th-century Mark Twain. Inevitably, her apotheosis has provoked a reaction. Even her admirers feel compelled to distance themselves from uncritical worship of Saint Jane. The skeptics are worth listening to, if only to put Jacobs’s achievement in proper context.” (Full article here).

TAC asked several writers who cover urban issues for their assessment of Jacobs’s Death and Life in its jubilee year.


Ryan Avent
The Economist
Christopher Leinberger
Brookings Institution
Mark Mitchell
Front Porch Republic
Philip Bess
Notre Dame School of Architecture
William Lind
TAC Center for Public Transportation
John Norquist
Congress for the New Urbanism
James Howard Kunstler
Author of The Geography of Nowhere
Lewis McCrary
The American Conservative
Randal O’Toole
Cato Institute


Ryan Avent

In the half-century since the publication of Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities, many of the country’s great cities journeyed to the brink of expiration before eventually finding new life. Many of the cities wracked by riots, deindustrialization, and depopulation in the 1960s and 1970s enjoyed a renaissance in recent decades. Changes in tastes and demographics contributed to the recovery, as did a nationwide trend toward falling crime. Most importantly, the evolution of technology and the global economy, which had previously undermined the production of goods in cities, began to reinforce the production of ideas — a process at which cities excel. Brightening economic prospects meant a turnaround in investment and migration. The upshot of these trends is that cities are now battlegrounds over growth, rather than decline. With more people wishing to live in great cities, there are more debates over what those cities should be.

Jacobs was a keen observer of cities and of the impact of their design on behavior. Many urbanists now treat her most important work as a sort of glorified design manual, in which the particular look of 1960s-era Greenwich Village is set up as an ideal. As a result, many urbanists find themselves opposing new developments in cities. Some warn that taller buildings are inimical to the kind of sidewalk ballet Jacobs praised, while others fight development on the grounds that it may make neighborhoods unaffordable, thereby eroding the diversity of incomes and uses in the area and leading to decline. Of course, these ideas are incompatible with each other. Efforts to limit dense development across the city prevent builders from meeting the rising demand for urban housing. This, in turn, leads to soaring housing costs, which erode neighborhood diversity.

What Jacobs most appreciated about cities was their extraordinary capacity for adaptation. Cities have an almost magical ability to support a wide variety of people doing a wide variety of things. It is flexibility that gives rise to the urban diversity Jacobs so loved. And it was the government’s efforts to wipe away that flexibility, and replace it with prescriptive, top-down creations, straight from the mind of the central planner — disruptive highways and housing projects that disturbed the natural growth of the city — that so offended her. Swapping one set of rigidities for another isn’t the way to make today’s cities function well.

Ryan Avent is The Economist‘s economics correspondent. He writes the Free Exchange blog and is the author of The Gated City.

Philip Bess

Jane Jacobs “saved New York City’s soul” — or, at least, saved Greenwich Village — and deserves accolades for the achievement. But in evaluating her permanent contributions to urban theory it is good to place those contributions in historical perspective.

Urban life preceded Aristotle by several centuries, but the longest sustained tradition of argument on behalf of urban life is Aristotelian. Cities, this argument goes, exist for the sake of human flourishing — not merely for subsistence living but rather for the best life for human beings.

In book seven of The Politics, Aristotle describes some of the characteristics of a good city: it is sited to facilitate trade, to be close to springs and reservoirs, proximate to agriculture, and to be defensible; it is a place of production and exchange, home to artisans and merchants, creating surplus wealth that makes both leisure and the liberal and fine arts possible; it requires good character of its individual residents and a just political order, and generally must be small enough to be seen in a single view and for citizens to know each others’ characters either personally or by reputation; and finally; it requires certain physical and spatial elements, including temples, walls, guardhouses, and agoras for trade and for civic debate and ritual.

Aristotle was not the expert in urban formal order that the 1st century B.C. Roman Vitruvius or the 15th century Italian Renaissance man Alberti were. But there is nothing in their canonical treatises on architecture that contradicted in any serious way Aristotle’s characterization of the nature and purpose of cities. So here it seems important to note that the good cities Aristotle was describing were not the size of such modern metropoleis as New York.  Rather, they were about the size of a traditional small town or urban neighborhood — in fact, about the size of urban neighborhoods not unlike Greenwich Village. Nevertheless, the formal order of the ancient polis, the contemporary small town, and the modern big city neighborhood have something essential in common: they are all typically networks of blocks and streets and squares that contain within them a mix of uses within pedestrian proximity. And pace Jane Jacobs and Austin Bramwell, these physical characteristics are not incidental to good urban life at any scale.

It is important to recall the impoverished cultural context — still too much our cultural context — in which Jane Jacobs worked. In the land of the blind the one-eyed woman is queen; and in an era of so-called urban renewal, of stupid and rapacious real estate development “Won’t you come see me Queen Jane?” approximates an understandable plea from her admirers. Still her failure (or her choice not) to discuss the relationship between cities and human happiness was regrettable; and it has been left to organizations like the Congress for the New Urbanism to raise these issues again, sometimes well and sometimes badly. As I argue here and here, it is way too much to claim that good urban design will make people good. But it is more than counter-intuitive to think that good urban design doesn’t matter, it’s positively bone-headed.

And it is just historically false to say — and particularly unfortunate for conservatives to say — that Jane Jacobs fought “a century’s worth of received wisdom in urban planning.”  It was about forty years at most; and knowingly or not what Jane Jacobs was fighting was not city planning per se, but rather modernist city planning.  Planned cities antedate Aristotle (he mentions the then “modern” city planning practices of Hippodamus, who planned the 5th century BC re-building of Miletus); were a common practice of the Romans (some of whose castra to this day remain the historic centers of thriving cities, including Florence, Turin, and Regensburg); and exist throughout the Americas to this day (including New Haven, Savannah, Philadelphia and Washington, DC). So conservative urbanists especially should strive for some perspective. “Saint Jane” warrants veneration, but still we seek the City that is to come.

Philip Bess is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies at the School of Architecture at the University of Notre Dame, and a member of the Congress for the New Urbanism. He is the author of Till We Have Built Jerusalem.

James Howard Kunstler

Neither of us might be called conservatives, but Jane Jacobs and I had some beers together at her house in Toronto a few years before her death. She was very avid for beer that afternoon and I had a hard time keeping up with her. I was there to interview her for a magazine article. Her house was one of those generous, foursquare, two-story, Arts & Crafts, height-of-the-Commonwealth bungalows on a quiet street off Bloor, one of the city’s main shopping corridors. It was rather dark inside and decorated with the incunabula of 1960s Greenwich Village bohemianism – African masks, Danish modern furniture, bongo drums. Jane and her family had fled to Canada during the Vietnam era so her sons could get out of the army draft.

I was planning to write a book on some doomer-ish themes such as peak oil, climate change, and other converging catastrophes of the day, and I thought Jane might shed some light on these things. But she kept on deflecting my questions. All she wanted to talk about was growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

She did show me her writing room upstairs, which was a surprising bare and modest chamber about the size of a walk-in closet, with little more than a chair, desk, and typewriter. I left the session feeling rather frustrated with what I got on tape.  It turned out that wily old Jane was writing a book somewhat along the same lines as the one I was planning. It would be titled Dark Age Ahead. I guess she didn’t want to talk about it that day.

James Howard Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition, and The Long Emergency, as well as several novels, including World Made by Hand and The Witch of Hebron. He blogs at www.kunstler.com.

William Lind

The first three chapters of Jane Jacobs’s definitive book The Death and Life of Great American Cities are on sidewalks. Had she lived in a city other than New York and written thirty years earlier, her fourth chapter might have been on streetcars.

New York had streetcars, but unlike other American cities it also had (and has) a comprehensive transport system. Subways and streetcars have somewhat different urban functions, but New York City’s subways did ensure that, once the streetcars were gone, public transportation remained the choice for most New Yorkers.

Elsewhere, the ripping up of streetcar lines and their replacement with buses also ripped the urban fabric. Most people like riding streetcars, but almost no one likes riding a bus. The substitution of buses for electric streetcars drove most former streetcar riders to drive.

When people took the streetcar to town — and every American city or town with 5,000 or more people once had streetcars — they also spent a lot of time on Jane Jacobs’ all-important sidewalks. There, they performed multiple functions: eyes on the street, office worker, restaurant diner, shopper, theater-goer and more.

Once they drove into the city, their time on sidewalks dropped and with it shrank the number of roles they filled. They drove as close to their (usually single) destination as they could, parked, and walked only as far as necessary. When their business was done, their car drew them like a magnet and as soon as they could press the starter pedal they were gone. Stores, restaurants, and theaters moved to the suburbs where parking was easier. In time offices followed, and the city’s sidewalks emptied except for the occasional beggar or wino. My home city, Cleveland, lost its streetcars in 1953, and the downtown’s decline began. If Ohio had tumbleweeds, they would now blow down Euclid Avenue.

Cities such as Portland, Oregon and Kenosha, Wisconsin that have brought streetcars back have found the sidewalks come to life again. So have shops, theaters and restaurants. Streetcars are pedestrian facilitators, more so than subways. People walk, take the streetcar, then get off and walk some more.

Cities need streetcars. They are not a cure-all; if people do not feel safe on city sidewalks, nothing will move them to walk there. But if a city can restore order, streetcars are more likely to fill its sidewalks with people than anything else.

William Lind is director of The American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.

Christopher Leinberger

It is hard to know where to start about the legacy of Jane Jacobs, but the easiest and most personal is that she was the catalyst for many people to get into urbanism as a career. Whether as an architect, real estate developer, urban planner, community advocate, or just a resident, many people had a veil pulled back that such a field even existed. She taught that walkable urban places were a distinct and threatened way of living and making a living. On a personal level, reading The Death and Life of Great American Cities showed me that my fascination with my hometown’s Rittenhouse Square was part of a much bigger new world and lead me into the various roles I have played in urbanism.

Jane Jacobs also showed the complexity of these places; they were not formulas to be imposed from above. Walkable urban places are organic and grow from the dirt of a specific place.

Just as she brought urbanism to the attention of millions of people, it went into suspended animation. The market demand of the 1960s through the 1990s was for the very opposite of walkable urbanism, drivable suburban development. The explosion of car-dominated suburbs is what the returning World War II vets wanted and where the baby boom was raised. The heart of the industrial age was the providing the raw materials, building, financing, insuring, building the roads, servicing, fueling and maintaining the cars that drove, literally and figuratively, the drivable suburban development patterns of the late 20th century.

Yet when the market turned, which seems to have occurred in the mid-1990s, going back to demanding walkable urban places once again, there she was to teach the Millennial generation how to do it. She would have been very pleased to see the many downtowns that have redeveloped and the downtown adjacent places that evolved from abandoned sections of our cities. But she probably would have been surprised to see the urbanization of the suburbs. The 19th-century suburban town centers, like Princeton, Pasadena and Bethesda, and the redevelopment of strip commercial into complex walkable urban grids with mixed-use development might have been a pleasant shock. Same lessons, different locations.

Finally, she taught Americans and democratic peoples around the world about the abuse of absolute power. Jane Jacobs’s battle with Robert Moses, the most powerful New York State public official for 40 years, was the classic Daniel vs. Goliath standoff.  Her defeat of the cross-Manhattan expressway that would have destroyed SoHo, which today is some of the most expensive real estate in the world on a price per square foot basis, gave hope to urbanists everywhere. And it showed that millions of small decisions made by thousands of people, in other words the market, is better than a top-down government in any era.

The walkable urbanism Jane Jacobs was advocating can put an economic foundation under the American economy in the early 21st century, a foundation that it desperately needs to get out of the economic ditch we are in.

Christopher Leinberger is a visiting fellow of the Brookings Institution, professor of real estate development at the University of Michigan, and a metropolitan land strategist and developer. He is the author of The Option of Urbanism.

Lewis McCrary

Jane Jacobs’s most vital contribution to urbanism is summed up in the title of an article she wrote in 1958 for Fortune magazine, “Downtown is for People.” The article so impressed editor Jason Epstein that he offered Jacobs a contract for what would a few years later be released as The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Death and Life is suffused with the idea that the welfare of individual persons — not the efficiency of infrastructure or continued economic growth — should be the primary aim of good city design. Her recognition that particular persons often suffered at the hands of the abstract theory of modernist planners led to a skepticism of big universal schemes imposed on the urban landscape.

Austin Bramwell might be right to call her a reactionary, but Jacobs was responding to a school of former radicals — the modernist planners — and both were operating in a period of dramatic postwar economic growth and prosperity. It was a moment that enabled and amplified the conditions of modernity: contested norms, pluralism, and a deracinated population settling alongside persons with whom they had seemingly little in common. These conditions continued to define the traditional points of arrival of the New World, and thus explain Jacobs’s focus on “Great American Cities.” The modernists wanted to respond to the postwar moment by dismantling the old urban forms, but Jacobs argued that their ability to adapt to new circumstances would enable the survival of an urban life worth living.

Some conservatives concerned with recreating strong local communities are dismayed by Jacobs’s contention that large cities must allow for diversity of choice and comfort among strangers. But compare her pragmatic approach with the modernist utopias of theorists like Le Corbusier, and it’s clear that Jacobs displayed a traditionalist sensibility — particularly insofar as she opposed projects that brought real, physical manifestations of a kind of totalitarian impulse to American shores.

Jacobs was not Aristotelian in the same sense as some who wish to restore the scale and constant face-to-face interaction of the classical polis. But her method of investigation was broadly inspired by Aristotle. In denying that planners should reason purely deductively, from abstract premises, she advocates for a kind of phronetic approach to urbanism, a method that is sometimes translated as “practical wisdom” or “prudence.”

This sensitivity to the gap between theory and practice is what allowed Jacobs to resist the abstractions of modernists — Burke would have called them “sophisters and calculators” — and in doing so she defended the welfare of embodied persons and particular realities, which demand more than a reduction to variables to be manipulated in an equation. As she wrote in the conclusion to Death and Life, “City processes in real life are too complex to be routine, too particularized for application as abstractions. They are always made up of interactions among unique combinations of particulars, and there is no substitute for knowing the particulars.”

The most important particulars are people. Jane Jacobs understood this, and it continues to set Death and Life apart in the canon of urban planning.

Lewis McCrary is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He tweets at @LewisMcCrary.

Mark T. Mitchell

Since World War II, our economy—that is to say, our culture of work, leisure, and home—has been constructed around the ideal of easy mobility, which has contributed to the dis-integration of various aspects of our lives. We live in one place, work in another, shop in another, worship in another, and take our leisure somewhere else. However, an integrated life, that is a life of integrity, is one characterized by membership in a community in which one lives, works, worships, and conducts other significant human activities. Our modern mobile life is an historical anomaly built on an abundance of cheap oil. Those days may soon be gone.

In her classic work on urban design, The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs argues that healthy cities are characterized by districts and neighborhoods that exhibit a diversity of uses that makes for safe, vibrant streets and the possibility of satisfying many of one’s daily tasks in a single locale.

Jacobs is interested in the complex, often messy, ingredients that contribute to human flourishing. However, the predilection for specialization has infected those disciples that traditionally concern themselves with city design. The humane elements—aesthetics, culture, tradition—have been replaced by a technical discipline dedicated to simplicity and efficiency. Homogeneity and ultimately sprawl represent the culmination of specialization and the rejection of ideas that for centuries had informed the development of healthy cities. As Jacobs puts it, “to understand cities, we have to deal outright with combinations of mixtures of uses, not separate uses, as the essential phenomena.”

In this light, it is clear that the ideal sought by the so-called New Urbanists is not new at all, for by championing mixed-use walkable neighborhoods, they are merely attempting to recover a simple truth long known and only recently forgotten: cities, towns, and neighborhoods should be constructed to facilitate human flourishing. Jacobs shows us a humane way to think about urban areas, a way that rejects our recent flirtation with single uses and hyper-mobile enclaves in favor of what can only be termed traditional urban design. In that sense, hers is a deeply conservative work.

Mark Mitchell is president and co-editor of Front Porch Republic. He teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College and is the author of Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and the forthcoming The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age.

John Norquist

I met Jane Jacobs in 1997. The 5th Congress for the New Urbanism was meeting in Toronto. Although she had declined our invitation to address the group, she was eager to interact with new urbanists, including CNU founders Peter Calthorpe, Andres Duany and Lizz Plater-Zyberk. After a hearty meal, the conversation turned to her successful opposition to expressways in New York City’s Greenwich Village, Boston’s North End and the Spadina Expressway in Toronto. She pointed out that defeating the Spadina was easier because Canada’s government had no program comparable to the U.S. Interstate Highway Act, with its high-octane 90 percent federal funding share.

The American environmental movement — long associated with the Left — advocates for an active role for the Feds in support of transit, even though they are often disappointed by the results. A prime example: Environmentalists largely supported President Obama, whose stimulus package contained some rail money, but had far more for expressways.

On the other side, U.S. conservatives divide roughly into two camps: anti-government libertarians and neocons who see big highway building as a key to America’s way of life. The neocons also support the U.S. military’s aggressive worldwide presence to secure the oil needed to fuel sprawl.

Where would Jane fit in today’s politics? She resisted labels, though I suspect she’d be sympathetic to the Enviros, if a bit suspicious of some of their anti-urban remedies, such as bioswales. She would probably fit closest to the libertarians, although in stark contrast to faux-libertarians like Cato’s Randall O’Toole or Wendall Cox who support massive highway spending while relentlessly attacking transit. Her battles taught her that big well-funded programs tend to overwhelm the complex fabric of city neighborhoods. The Interstate Highway program, urban renewal, and the anti-urban design criteria of FHA and Fannie Mae — all big government ideas — impose rural and suburban forms on American cities at great expense to taxpayers.

Today’s suburbs shaped by government imposed separate-use zoning and over-scaled roads need to be retrofitted. The codes and road metrics must be challenged and that’s exactly what the Congress for the New Urbanism is doing. We partnered with the Institute of Transportation Engineers to produce the manual Designing Walkable Urban Thoroughfares that is helping suburbs and cities build streets that can support the retail and social interaction that Jane Jacobs enjoyed on Hudson St. in the West Village. We are challenging the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and HUD to eliminate regulations that suppress mixed-use development and have made America’s Main Streets an illegal non-conforming use. Urbanism should not just be about wonderful old places worth defending. Urbanism should be allowed to express itself in newly built places as well. We believe Urbanism not only has a past, but a future.

John Norquist, the former mayor of Milwaukee, is president of the Congress for the New Urbanism.

Randal O’Toole

Jane Jacobs was highly influential and highly overrated. She was right to defend her neighborhood against urban planners who, motivated by federal dollars, saw “blight” everywhere and sought to demolish entire thriving sections of cities. She correctly understood that the planners really didn’t understand how cities worked and that their plans too often did more harm than good.

What Jacobs didn’t realize is that she didn’t understand how cities worked any better than the planners. Her rules for urban design apply only in limited circumstances. Her slogans, such as “eyes on the street” as a way of reducing crime, turn out to be wrong.

Jacobs even failed to understand her own neighborhood. Because the apartments in her neighborhood were small and backyards nearly nonexistent, people did their socializing on the streets. This made the streets seem “lively.” By comparison, suburban homes are large and people do their socializing in the homes or backyards, making the streets appear dead. While Jacobs warned that people shouldn’t apply her rules to small towns or suburbs, she herself had few kind things to say about the suburbs and accepted the conventional wisdom among urban elites that suburbs are boring.

Unfortunately, Jacobs’ Death & Life of Great American Cities was too successful. In praising her neighborhood to defend it against the planners of her generation, Jacobs spawned a new generation of planners who want to rebuild every small town and suburb into high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods like the ones she was defending. This is just as inappropriate as the urban-renewal policies of the 1960s. While dense tenements were considered slums in the 1960s–and rightly so in many cases–somehow, in the minds of so-called “new-urban” planners today, density has become the solution to every urban problem.

Near the end of her life, Jacobs became a chameleon. When interviewed by libertarians, she gladly bad-mouthed planners. But when interviewed by planners, she praised new urban planners and policies aimed at forcing density on people who don’t want it. The truth is that, in the age of the automobile and internet, the market for the dense lifestyle she preferred is limited and the value of living in close proximity to other people and businesses is steadily declining.

The best lesson we can take from Death and Life is that anyone who thinks a few rules can explain the complexity of cities is wrong. The best thing government can do is keep its hands off of people’s lifestyle choices, end both subsidies and coercive regulations, and let cities and suburbs grow the way they want to grow as a result of the choices of individual property owners and residents in those regions.

Randal O’Toole is senior fellow at The Cato Institute. His books include The Vanishing Automobile and Other Urban Myths, The Best-Laid Plans, and Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It. O’Toole blogs at The Antiplanner.