56 pages 1 hour read

Jane Jacobs

The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 1961

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Summary and Study Guide


The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a 1961 non-fiction book written by Jane Jacobs, an American-Canadian journalist, author, and activist with expertise in urban history and theory. This guide refers to the original edition published by the Vintage Books division of Random House. The title references the killing of cities by urban planners and to Jacobs’s ideas about the processes required to breathe new life into them. Jacobs’s overarching aim is to provide a better understanding of what makes cities function well and to suggest directions for their improvement.

Jacobs opens her book with an attack on city planning as it is theorized and practiced in the United States. She positions herself against orthodox city planners, whose harmful policies are rooted in three major urban movements: the Garden City, the Radiant City, and the City Beautiful.

Part 1, “The Peculiar Nature of Cities,” addresses the main uses of sidewalks: safety, contact, and assimilating children. Safety depends on a clear demarcation of the public and the private and the spontaneous protection afforded by pedestrians and casual onlookers inside buildings. As primary points of contact and interaction, sidewalks are key to building community trust. Given their safety, it is preferable for children to play on sidewalks than to segregate them in parks and playgrounds, which lack the informal surveillance mechanisms of street environments. Jacobs describes neighborhoods as organs of self-government that require active participation from their dwellers for success.

Part 2, “The Conditions for City Diversity,” examines the various mechanisms that generate diversity, an essential component for successful cities. These mechanisms are largely economic. Complex mixtures of uses ensure that diverse individuals populate neighborhoods and use common facilities at different times. Short streets increase circulation options for their users, which promotes social interaction and economic development. Buildings of different ages can accommodate people and businesses of different economic means. High-density areas promote vibrant, visible city life. The combination of all these conditions generates diversity. 

Part 3, “Forces of Decline and Regeneration,” focuses on four major forces negatively impacting cities. First, dislocating less affluent individuals and businesses and replacing them with more affluent ones not only decreases diversity in those neighborhoods, but also has a cross-effect on other areas. Second, massive single facilities, such as college campuses, create vacuums in their bordering areas, which become terminuses of generalized use. Third, population instability obstructs diversity, especially in low-income areas. Fourth, money alone, whether private or public, cannot make cities thrive.

Part 4, “Different Tactics,” offers concrete tools to improve cities. These include increasing subsidized housing, reducing the number and use of automobiles by improving public transportation, enhancing the visual order of cities without sacrificing diversity, salvaging housing projects, and revamping governing and planning districts. Cities are large, complex entities with varied problems. Only a multipronged response can address this complexity.