How I learned to stop worrying and finally finish reading "The Death and Life of Great American Cities"

It took me a little over two months to read Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities. That even longer than I needed to finish Thomas Pynchon's 1,185 page Against The Day.  Jacobs' book is less than half that length, but what it lacks in sheer pages it makes up for in textbooky-ness. That makes it, as one Goodreads reviewer noted, "...easy to put down."

It was also one of the most informative books I've ever read. I've developed strong opinions regarding how cities ought to be planned without ever bothering to learn anything about how they actually are planned. That wasn't an acceptable state of affairs, so I tracked down the consensus pick for the best book on city planning and this one is, by most accounts, the place to start.

The Death and Life of Great American Cites was first published in 1961 and, while it certainly shows its age in some of the details, it remains a remarkably forward-looking book. Jacobs' central thesis is that most city planning misses the mark because the prevalent theories are concerned with how cities ought to be as opposed to looking what actually works in existing cities and working out why it works and attempting to replicate it.

Jacobs makes no attempt to disguise her disdain for the three prevailing paradigms of her day: The Garden City, the Radiant City, and the City Beautiful. In her telling, the Garden City's primary impact on urban planning was the urge to put as much green space in cities as possible and to minimize the number of streets. The Radiant City (and again, this is Jacobs version of it) is also concerned with minimize the footprint of streets and building tall, inward-facing buildings to maximize the efficiency of land use. The City Beautiful focuses on creating districts apart from the rest of the city concentrating all of the cultural centers and monuments in one location.

She sees all of these as profoundly wrong-headed as they compartmentalize the city, segregating districts and neighborhoods in the interests of efficient and rational organization. Instead, she espouses diversity in all of its messy, difficult to replicate glory. Jacobs' four drivers for generating diversity are:

1.  A mixture of primary uses (to ensure that there are reasons for a variety of people to be in the area at different times of the day).

2. Small city blocks (to allow the free flow of foot and vehicle traffic allowing areas to knit together with nearby districts).

3. A mixture in ages of buildings (to ensure both a mixture of uses so the area doesn't become monochromatic and a mixture of prices to allow new and innovative uses of the area).

4. Sufficient density of people in the area (to support businesses and housing, meaning that the district has to continue to appeal to residents as their circumstances improve).

Jacobs gives entire chapters to almost every imaginable aspect of her proposals. I won't go into detail, but she most certainly does. She's incredibly thorough in laying out her argument and does so primarily by use of anecdote and not a little bit of old-fashioned lecturing. She gives the impression that she knows both her sources and the numbers behind her statements thoroughly,  but there's very little of either of these in the book itself.

If it sounds like I have mixed feelings about this book, then I'm accurately expressing my feelings toward it. I've been looking at the structure of cities differently while reading it, and I now how some theoretical framework on which to hang my ideas about how cities should be planned. When I see something that appears to be working, I have a better idea as to why this should be so. The book did what it set out to do, and it did so better than I expected and the vast majority of what she has to say holds up over 50 years later.

If you're even a little interested in city planning, it's worth the effort to read The Death and Live of Great American Cities. Just be forewarned that it will be an effort.

-RK