Book Quotes: Jane Jacobs on City Planning

From time to time, either because I’m lazy or because I’m exceptionally clever, I will post a week-long series on a certain topic. This week, our inaugural series will be quotations from Jane Jacob’s classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961 during the Golden Age of Urban Renewal and Modernist principles of urban planning.

I discovered this book later than most preservationists but it has nonetheless made a huge impression on me. Jacobs is important to the preservation movement because she was in that first generation of preservationists who cared about whole neighborhoods, not just saving a single site here and there as a museum. She and her neighbors fought for decades to save their beloved Greenwich Village (the real one, not the one that might be built in Fondren) from both piecemeal demolition and large-scale city projects planned by Robert Moses. She also honed straight in on the Modernist urban planning philosophies that were ripping apart both the architectural and the social fabric of cities. 

Jacobs showed me that what urban planners often see as chaos in need of fixing is actually a complex form of order, and one that makes a city work well and provide a safe environment for the citizens. Jacobs, to me, is the essense of anti-Modernism, not in the sense of recoiling from the modern world, but in her embrace of the human-scale everyday life around her and in her rejection of industrial, large-scale solutions to urban problems.

Here’s her introduction, which knocked my socks off, or would have, had I been wearing socks:

This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding. It is also, and mostly, an attempt to introduce new principles of city planning and rebuilding, different and even opposite from those now taught in everything from schools of architecture and planning to the Sunday supplements and women’s magazines. My attack is not based on quibbles about rebuilding methods or hairsplitting about fashions in design. It is an attack, rather, on the principles and aims that have shaped modern, orthodox city planning and rebuilding.

In setting forth different principles, I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things: for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not; why some city parks are marvelous and others are vice traps and death traps; why some slums stay slums and other slums regenerate themselves even against financial and official opposition; what makes downtowns shift their centers; what, if anything, is a city neighborhood, and what jobs, if any, neighborhoods in great cities do. In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life, because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practices in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities, and what practices and principles will deaden these attributes.

There is a wishful myth that if only we had enough money to spend–the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars [piff, pocket change!] we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yesterday’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering places than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

This is the 1st post in a series. Wouldn’t you love to read the rest of the series?

Jane Jacobs on Streets

Jane Jacobs on Gentrification

Jane Jacobs on Old Buildings

Jane Jacobs on the Environment and Suburbia

Categories: Books, Historic Preservation, Modernism, Urban/Rural Issues

1 reply


  1. Jane Jacobs/Robert Moses/Stimulus Bill « Preservation in Mississippi

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