JANE JACOBS: Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs crops up in almost every piece of literature related to planning and urban design. Despite not having any formal training, her magnus opus, The Death and Life of Great American Cities is integral to the urban planning canon.

I have to confess, that more than a year deep into my urban planning studies I still hadn’t read the entire book. She crops up in countless secondary sources and she is cited at some point in many books on the subject matter written after the 1960s, and so I was intrigued to read her account of urban planning direct from the source.

From bumping into her work in other sources, her work seems to be fairly well-liked or at least respected by contemporary urbanists across the political spectrum. Richard Sennett’s Uses of Disorder, published just a decade after Death and Life, is clearly influenced strongly by Jacobs’ conceptualisation of cities and her celebration of street life as ordered chaos. In Sennett and architect Pablo Sendra’s collection of essays Designing Disorder: Experimentations and Disruptions in the city, both authors clearly continue to hold Jacobs in high regard. This is despite Sennett’s clear New Left roots and Sendra’s post-2008 Podemos politics and participation in Right to the City type movements, while Jacobs’ thinking is clearly quite a long way from that. Sennett goes so far as to describe her as an “anarchist urbanist.”

The only two urbanists and writers I have encountered (and I am sure there are more, but these are the only ones in my readings so far) who are critical of Jacobs’ work and thinking are one of my favourite writers ever ever ever Owen Hatherley, as well as the great Mike Davis. I was pleased especially to stumble across Owen Hatherley’s chapter on Jane Jacobs’ Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances after finishing Death and Life, as it confirmed quite a few suspicions about Jacobs’ thinking that I had formed while reading her tome.

It would be a disservice so summarise her opus in one go, so to do it the justice it deserves I will present Jane as an act in three parts: An introduction to her (for the uninitiated), followed by what she gets right and then what she gets wrong in Death and Life.

Author: marianne

Urban design, planning, housing, buildings, music

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