The Death and Life of Great American Cities Critical Essays

Jane Butzner


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jacobs begins with an in-depth consideration of the uses of sidewalks. Essentially, sidewalks serve three functions necessary to the maintenance of a healthy neighborhood in an urban setting. First, they can provide safety, but only if they are used fairly continuously and if the buildings on the street are not cut off from the sidewalk by lack of windows, excessive plantings, or the anonymity of steel and glass. Sidewalks offer a place for the eyes of the neighborhood, as Jacobs puts it, to maintain a watch on the happenings. Second, a well-used sidewalk provides a public place for the meetings between citizens, both planned and random, that make up the vitality of city life. Third, sidewalks are a real-life laboratory in which the moral lives of children are established, giving them contact with many different adults and bringing them into the life of the community.

Jacobs then turns to a consideration of parks, first jettisoning the notion that more open space is, as most city planners seem to think, necessarily good. Open space is good only if it exists in conjunction with a diversity of possible uses. When people have reasons to use a park all day long, not only on weekends or during lunch breaks, the park becomes one more facet of a lively neighborhood.

Neighborhoods themselves make up the local street neighborhood, the larger district neighborhood, and the city-as-a-whole. Each level of organization, if it is to be healthy, depends on the health and vitality of the others, and each serves specific economic, political, and social functions. Without a strong district identity, for instance, a street neighborhood cannot protect itself from or gain access to the political and economic weight of the city-as-a-whole. Similarly, the entire city drifts into stagnation if its streets are only dull gray areas with no distinct identities to distinguish one from the other.

Jacobs goes on to examine the conditions necessary to diversity, four of which she details. Neighborhoods must serve multiple functions, ensuring the presence of people at all times of the day who mix for a variety of purposes. Blocks must be short to provide easy access to all parts of the neighborhood. Buildings must be of mixed ages...

(The entire section is 913 words.)