Jane Jacobs Part IV: What did she get wrong?

Jane Jacobs got some things right, albeit often for the wrong reasons as I mentioned previously. However sometimes she did get things wrong, plain and simple. Despite not having any technical training in architecture, planning, or urban design, she rejected fundamental urban planning ideals related to scale, density, urban grain, use of space (parks and sidewalks) and zoning. Some of these are good challenges certainly, although I don’t agree with all of them. My issue isn’t that she rejected these ideals outright, rather she didn’t delve deeper into the reasons behind why these ideals may exist, and her reactions against them felt somewhat knee-jerk.

As an anti-communist and something of a small-state libertarian, she tended to place a lot of emphasis on the responsibility of small business owners, shopkeepers, and homeowners for building a solid community. From this, she creates her famous “ballet of the street,” which feels like something of a magical universe, a kind of Disney-esque utopia which I struggle to believe really existed in the way she described it:

“The ballet of the city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations. The stretch of Hudson Street where I live is each day the scene of an intricate sidewalk ballet. I make my own first entrance into it a little after eight when I put out the garbage can, surely a prosaic occupation, but I enjoy my part, my little clang, as the droves of junior high school students walk by the centre of the stage dropping candy wrappers […].

While I sweep up the wrappers I watch the other rituals of the morning: Mr Halpert unlocking the laundry’s handcart from its mooring to a cellar door, Joe Cornacchia’s son-in-law stacking out the empty crates from the delicatessen, the barber brining out his sidewalk folding chair, Mr Goldstein arranging the coils of wire which proclaim the hardware store is open, the wife of the tenement’s superintendent depositing her chunky three-year-old with a toy mandolin on the stoop, the vantage point from which he is learning the English his mother cannot speak. […]

The heart-of-the-day ballet I seldom see, because of the nature of it is that working people who live there, like me, are mostly gone, filling the roles of strangers on other sidewalks. But from days off, I know enough of it to know that it becomes more and more intricate. Longshoremen who are not working that day gather at the White Horse or the Ideal or the International for beer and conversation. The executives and business lunchers from the industries just to the west throng the Dorgene restaurant and the Lion’s Head coffee-house; meat-market workers and communications scientists fill the bakery lunchroom. Character dancers come on, a strange old man with strings of old shoes over his shoulders, motor-scooter riders with big beards and girl friends who bounce on the back of the scooters and wear their hair long in front of their faces as well as behind, drunks who follow the advice of the Hat Council and are always turned out in hats, but not hats the Council would approve of. […]

When I get home after work, the ballet is reaching its crescendo. This is the time of roller skates and stilts and tricycles, and games in the lea of the stoop with bottle tops and plastic cowboys; this is the time of bundles and packages, zigzagging from the drugstore to the fruit stand and back over to the butcher’s, this is the time when teenagers, all dressed up, are pausing to ask if their slips show or their collars look right; this is the time when beautiful girls get out of M.G.s; this is the time when fire engines go through; this is the time when anybody you know around Hudson Street will go by. […]

I know the deep night ballet and its seasons best from waking long after midnight to tend to a baby and, sitting in the dark, seeing the shadows and hearing the sounds of the sidewalk. Mostly it is a sound like infinitely pattering snatches of party conversation and, about three in the morning, singing, very good singing. Sometimes there is a sharpness and anger or sad, sad, weeping, or a flurry of search for a string of beads broken. One night a young man came roaring along, bellowing terrible language at two girls whom he had apparently picked up and who were disappointing him. Doors opened, a way semi-circle formed around him, not too close, until the police came. Out came the heads too, along Hudson Street, offering opinion..’Drunk…Crazy…A wild kid from the suburbs” (pp. 60-63).

She then describes a scene where a bagpiper comes out in the middle of the night, and the neighbours come out on to the street to crowd around him and dance a highland fling. Beautiful though these descriptions are, I can’t help but feel these are perhaps journalistic embellishments for the sake of entertainment.

Jacobs does indeed recognise this, an adds that “I have made the daily ballet of Hudson Street sound more frenetic than it is, because writing it telescopes it. In real life, it is not that way. In real life, to be sure, something is always going on, the ballet is never at a halt, but the general effect is peaceful and the general tenor even leisurely. People who know well such animated city streets will know how it is. I am afraid people who do not will always have it a little wrong in their heads – like the old prints of rhinoceroses made from travellers’ description of rhinoceroses” (pg. 64).

1. Centrality of small businesses

Central to Jacobs’ vision of a utopian city is one that is bustling full of small businesses and niche shops, and where the shopkeepers act as informal “guardians” of the city. This might include reprimanding misbehaving youth, to holding spare keys for neighbours, and from watching over the children of the neighbourhood to matchmaking customers to each other. Her rainbow-tinted vision could be that of a hipster before her time: “Cities, however, are the natural homes or supermarkets and standard movie houses plus delicatessens, Viennese bakeries, foreign groceries, art movies, and so on, all of which can be found co-existing, the standard with the strange, the large with the small (pg 158).”

The centrality she places on small businesses seems rather nostalgic and romanticised, and like the description of the sidewalk ballet above, I find it difficult to believe it was rooted in reality. Her view was the street itself as a socially embedded support system or infrastructure for security and safety where the streets are busy round the clock.

Small business owners, however, tend by their very nature to be advocates of low tax and small-state ideology. This seems to feed into Jacobs’ views that the role of the state should be limited. She also believed that impersonal streets are not related to “mystical” values of architectural scale, but related to what businesses are on the streets. This I disagree with, and there’s a lot of well-researched thinking on the notion of scale in architecture (I particularly like of the Danish architect Jan Gehl and his work around Human Scale), which Jacobs broadly dismisses.

2. ‘Eyes on the Street’
The importance that Jacobs placed on central businesses was related to her fixation with surveillance and keeping the streets safe. She sees deterring crime as a central need for improving city living. She recognises that a police state would only lead to dysfunction, so instead her solution is to ensure “eyes on the street” where residents and shopkeepers will keep calm and order naturally if the streets are always buzzing with activity. She also believes that cities should be designed to stop crime, which seems in essence to mean widening sidewalks, packing them full with shops, building densely, and removing parks and empty spaces.

One example she uses of business owners maintaining a sense of security in the street is that of Joe Cornacchia, the deli owner on her block in Hudson Street. She explains that: “The incident that attracted my attention was a suppressed struggle going on between a man and a little girl of eight or nine years old. The man seemed to be trying to get the girl to go with him. By turns she was directing a cajoling attention to her, and then assuming an air of nonchalance. The girl was making herself rigid, as children do when they resist, against the wall of the tenements across the street.”

She then goes on: “Joe Cornacchia, who with his sons-in-law keeps the delicatessen, emerged about the same moment and stood solidly to the other side. Several heads poked out of the tenement windows above, one was withdrawn quickly and its owner reappeared a moment later in the doorway behind the man. Two men from the bar next to the butcher shop came to the doorway and waiting. On my side of the street, I saw that the locksmith, the fruit man, and the laundry proprietor had all come out of their shops and that the scene was also being surveyed from a number of windows besides ours. That man did not know it, but he was surrounded. Nobody was going to allow a little girl to be dragged off, even if nobody knew who she was.

I am sorry – sorry purely for dramatic purposes – to have to report that the little girl turned out to be the man’s daughter.” (pp. 48-49).

Her fixation with surveillance translates into a primacy of sidewalks above everything else: while it seems sensible to prioritise pedestrians over cars, she also ranks sidewalks higher in priority than parks. In terms of biodiversity, reducing air pollution, city cooling, water management, and health benefits of nature, this preference to wide sidewalks over accessible green spaces and parks seems a bit misplaced. In this Jacobs is oddly conservative. She expresses a strong dislike for areas that aren’t under surveillance by the street and those that border and/or connect areas with transient, high-turnover population. She considers good areas to be “[those] where a strong tone of civilized public sidewalk life prevails” (p. 89).  

In the US, crime diffused by neighbourhoods and the unofficial “Guardians of the Street” seems to be imbued with racial discrimination. There have been countless reports, highlighted especially in the summer of Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, of suburban white women who feel unease at the activities of their black neighbours, and react to benign activities with force and quickness on calling the cops. This includes innocent men relaxing in Starbucks, children with lemonade stands, and fatally and tragically, joggers such as George Floyd.

The Karens of the world unite is one example about why the “eyes on the street” could backfire horribly. The other example is Oscar Newman’s ideas around Defensible Space, which as Richard Sennett points out in Designing Disorder, is the dark side of Jacobs’ Eyes on the Street.

Defensible space theory centres on the idea of urban design for prevention of crime, which the UK has embraced recently in Secured by Design, which I think is dreadful and I’ll write more on that another time.

3. Dislikes water and parks

Contrary to research on the importance of parks (green space), and water (blue space) in cities on public health, Jacobs’ has a strong aversion to both. This is perhaps her railing against Robert Moses, who was NYC’s Parks Commissioner at the time and her arch-enemy.

She does make a good point that badly managed parks can be dangerous, and I certainly would never pass through any city park alone late at night regardless of whether the threat may be perceived or real. During the day, if the park in question is well-used by a wide variety of people then it feels safe and secure; the problem is parks that are not used or are used only by rough sleepers, alcohols and drug users with poor lighting and lack of visibility that is the problem. This links back to a need for some state intervention however: my experience of city parks is that if they are accessible, in good order, have decent lighting and are kept clean, they will be well-used. If they are overgrown, poorly lit and have a lot of nooks and crannies with no specific play areas or sports facilities, they will tend not to be used by those who have wider options on what to do with the time and where to go. I disagree with Jacobs in that parks should never be an obstacle: they should be nurtured and encouraged and used by a broad cross-section of society.

Similarly, water should be treated as a positive asset to a city. Water has a tendency to calm and especially in a world facing climate catastrophe, has an important cooling effect on our warming cities. One of my major bugbears is how poorly waterfronts are developed in the UK: in my city, the waterfront area is filled with shitty chain restaurants, or empty boarded up properties, or tacky pubs. It has well proportioned buildings at human scale, wide pavements, yet the space is poorly organised and misused.

4. Early advocate of gentrification
Jacobs never uses the word gentrification, which was coined by Ruth Glass a little after the publication of Death and Life. However, what she describes is a sort of community-led, gentle gentrification where decent, young and early professional but yet not-yet- well-off folk from provincial New England (like her) buy up dilapidated properties (left abandoned after the exodus of the well-to-do for the suburbs after the Great Depression until the 1990s) for cheap prices, and then pour their heart and soul into bringing them up to date.

In her mind, these good folk then bring their strong morals and smalltown mentality to ensure that the city streets are kept safe and orderly. While the 1960s only saw the beginning of the gentrification process and the violent mechanisms used today by property developers, such as “decanting” of residents of lower socio-economic status to smaller and less fortunately located homes, Jacobs is a clear advocate of a system that has caused harm and misery to millions and millions of city inhabitants.

Her middle-class Pennsylvanian ideals fail to take into consideration that the pull of big city life for many people is not about orderly, community-oriented, tight-knit neighbourhoods. In fact, many move to New York or Chicago or San Francisco or London or Paris or Berlin (and so on) not only for the economic opportunities but for the anonymity big cities provide. Indeed, many people move to big cities to get away from exactly the smalltown mentality that Jacobs wishes to see replicated in big cities. In all, her vision seems to lack flexibility and she cannot seem to consider other points of view that may contradict with her own.


There’s a lot of good in Death and Life but also, I feel, quite a few fundamentals that Jane Jacobs gets wrong. The work was published in 1961 and the parts that have aged well versus the parts that have not are telling.  Her evidence is largely anecdotal (either her own or second-hand) rather than rooted in empirics, and she challenges many of the basic principles of urban planning. Some of these, such as er criticism of zoning, are fair challenges; others seem rather kneejerk, such as her fixation with sidewalks over parks.

There is also more than a smattering of moral righteousness, and she tends to slip rather easily into a barbarism versus civility narrative. While she had a progressive mindset in some ways, she was mostly weirdly conservative. Her politics seemed to be influenced by conservative thinkers such as Edmund Burke, in that she did not believe in the role of the state and seemed to support a laissez-faire economic system. She writes extensively about the damage cultural institutions built in the wrong place can inflict on a community, and she has a strong aversion to underused resource and inefficiency in cities. Strangely, the main role she envisages that the state should play is simply a broker for organising cultural institutions and ensuring they are used correctly; well-maintained and networked. She was clear on her stance against communism, although she did back unions and supported grassroots community organising.

In short, her ideas seem to hark back to a Victorian New York or London, where there are no cars, horse and carriage is king, and the streets are bustling at all hours of the day with servicemen, the help, tradesmen, industries, shopkeepers, and people going about their business. This is a very specific and rigid idea of a city, rooted in a particular point of time which cannot hold while material conditions have changed around them. She also makes little mention of socio-economic circumstances, race relations and tensions, inequality, and other big city challenges which certainly existed in the 1960s too.

She is largely sympathetic to homeless people, or “people of leisure” as she refers to them. However, she does not delve into the reasons as to why they might be homeless and a wider social critique around that. I do wonder, though, what she might make of today’s US with record levels of homelessness with complex needs, collapsed industries, a state long in retreat, failing empire status and a hegemon in retreat in a troubled world. I do suspect that she may not recognise her New York; and that there is rather more death than life in the Great American cities of today.

Author: marianne

Urban design, planning, housing, buildings, music

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