The Death and Life of Great American Cities

by Jane Butzner
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 913

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.

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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 to ensure that a variety of economic activity can take place, since aged buildings typically offer lower rents than newer ones. There must be a dense concentration of people—residents as well as others. These four conditions interlock, each supporting the others, making for complexity in diversity. Diversity, far from being ugly as many city planners would have it, provides the only hope of aesthetic distinction to a neighborhood, according to Jacobs, as well as offering people opportunities to encounter others different from themselves and thus to broaden their understanding of humanity.

Diversity does have its downside, though, as Jacobs suggests in the next part of the book. A district that is healthy and lively because of its diversity can become so popular that market forces drive rents too high, thereby squelching the very energy that raised the rents, since the businesses and residents who can afford the higher rents will represent only a fraction of the original social and economic diversity. Diversity, then, can in itself cause decay. Other causes of decay include the vacuum created in the presence of a massive single-use area, such as a large factory, park, or railroad yard. These represent barriers to activity, a deadening that can spread deep into a neighborhood. Another kind of decay is represented by the slum district, which conventional planning tries to erase with spending. Jacobs argues that no amount of money will do good as long as the residents of the slum have no commitment to staying in their neighborhood, breaking the cycle of despair and constant upheaval. Jacobs locates this commitment in the desire to maintain friendships and significant relationships that are not interchangeable, that create the sense of a community. Finally, decay can be furthered by both the unavailability of money for development and the availability of too much—the former through squeezing off possibilities of renewal, the latter by pressing renewal through too quickly. Growth of diversity is a slow process, built through many small changes, each dependent on the others.

In the last section of the book, Jacobs offers suggestions for how city planners might encourage this slow process. She confines her suggestions to areas that planners already deal with. For example, she examines the subsidizing of dwellings, the impact of automobiles on city life, the ordering of visual aesthetics, and the salvaging of housing projects by reintegrating them into more successful neighborhoods. She also makes suggestions regarding the governance of cities. In each area, she reframes the conventional attitudes and strategies of city planners with her own observations, pointing out how planners have misunderstood the nature of the problems they are trying to solve and have consequently caused more harm than good.

She concludes the book with a discussion of the kind of problem a city is. Solutions, she argues, do not lie with the applications of statistical methods and the simplistic identification of specific infrastructural needs, such as more parks, more streets, more parking, another library or hospital. Rather, the problem is one of organized complexity—what has more recently been termed chaos theory. The variables are too many to reduce to statistical analysis and require, instead, the highest processes of human intelligence, the creative and intuitional faculty that embraces the world in all of its complexity.

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