I found this book fascinating and compelling - and also sad. For where in Western cities can we find the kind of lively street scenes she is talking aboout and trying to protect. The bureaucrats and builders have successfully got rid of them, leaving only fakes and a few remnants. It's very sad - perhaps her recommendations can be used for bringing back the streetlife we've lost to the internet and the car.
I've been meaning to read this book for a long time as both it and the author crop up everywhere in the literature on the architecture and design of the buildings and public spaces in cities. While the book is a little bit on the long side, perhaps, (with some repetition as ideas and concepts are explained in depth), it nonetheless merits taking the time to read. If you have an interest in the subject - the ideas are applicable to all cities really, not just those in America, I can recommend this.
Even 35 years after it was written, The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains the classic book on how cities work and how urban planners and others have naively destroyed functioning cities. It is widely known for its incisive treatment of those who would tear down functioning neighborhoods and destroy the lives and livelihoods of people for the sake of a groundless but intellectually appealing daydream.
But although many see it as a polemic against urban planning, the best parts of it, the parts that have endeared it to many who love cities, are quite different. Death and Life is, first of all, a work of observation. The illustrations are all around us, she says, and we must go and look. She shows us parts of the city that are alive -- the streets, she says, are the city that we see, and it is the streets and sidewalks that carry the most weight -- and find the patterns that help us not merely see but understand. She shows us the city as an ecology -- a system of interactions that is more than merely the laying out of buildings as if they were a child's wooden blocks.
But observation can mean simply the noting of objects. Ms. Jacobs writes beautifully, lovingly, of New York City and other urban places. Her piece "The Ballet of Hudson Street" is both an observation of events on the Greenwich Village street where she lived and a prose poem describing the comings and goings of the people, the rhythms of the shopkeepers and the commuters and others who use the street.
In this day when "inner city" is a synonym for poverty and hopelessness, it is important to be reminded that cities are literally the centers of civilization, of business, of culture. This is just as true today as it was in the early 1960s when this was written. We in North America owe Jane Jacobs a great debt for her insight and her eloquence.
I bought this book as someone with an amateur interest in town planning and architecture, following a documentary about the author, Jane Jacobs, on BBC4. Jane Jacobs successfully campaigned against uninspired city developments in North America during the mid 20th century. Her book sets out some rules and guidelines as to what constitutes a successful mix of factors required for a thriving city. Note that by City she means the large, North American metropolis of the 1950's and 60's so the examples she gives are not always understood by me (ie someone in the UK in the early 21st century), and her conclusions may not be wholly appropriate especially in this internet age (there's a lot about shops which of course have their own challenges in the digital age). She is damning of the Garden City movement which I thought was unfair given that Welwyn Garden City and the like in the UK - at least the original parts - seem to work and are still popular. I can only assume that she'd consider these towns not cities and is looking at a different beast Stateside.
The book makes some common sense points about the need for town planning being co-ordinated to enable people to breathe life into their surroundings, and comes to some withering conclusions about the impact of arbitrarily redeveloping "slum" areas. Her points about the need for green spaces and parks to be carefully planned and not just dropped into an area as a tick box exercise were particularly eye opening to me. I understand this tome is a considered a reference benchmark for city planning. I read in a Times review of a recent Richard Roger's book, that Rogers has major respect for Jane Jacobs' book.
The only reason I haven't given this 5 stars is because the book was written in 1961 so inevitably some of the examples and potentially the conclusions, may not be entirely appropriate...but the principles hold good. A seemingly minor point but I'll mention it anyway; the print of the book is a fairly cheap job and the typeface isn't to my mind the easiest to read.