The Death and Life of Great American Cities Analysis

Jane Butzner

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Although Jane Jacobs never received any formal training in city planning or economics, her work has excited much interest, and perhaps more resistance, among academics and city leaders alike. Her first book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, grew out of her observations, as an editor of Architectural Forum, of the urban renewal projects in New York. Conventional planning, she noticed, did not seem to create vibrant, livable neighborhoods but rather killed whatever good had once been present. Her book, then, offers observations of various neighborhoods, mostly in New York, in regard to what constitutes a good or bad neighborhood. Jacobs finds that a good neighborhood offers to its inhabitants diverse possibilities for human interactions of all kinds—economic, social, political, cultural. Consequently, she examines those aspects of a city that can increase or decrease these possibilities and suggests ways for city planners to create better neighborhoods, or at least not destroy those aspects that are already strong.

The book is divided into four parts, beginning with a section dealing with uses of specific attributes of cities. The next part looks at how these attributes contribute to what Jacobs upholds as the most essential element of a healthy city: diversity. The third section examines what causes a city to decline and what causes it to gain new life. The book concludes with a series of specific suggestions for city planners and architects. Thus the book deals with all aspects of the city, from its physical nature to the underlying forces that keep it alive to the effects that citizens can have upon their environment.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

It is not surprising that in 1961, when Jacobs’ book was published, the male-dominated world of city planning, finance, and administration would almost unanimously dismiss the observations she offered. Not only did her suggestions hammer away at the fortifications surrounding the pork barrels from which the city fathers were feeding but also, and perhaps worse, the cogent book was written by a woman. She was derided as “the Enchanted Ballerina” and as a know-nothing upstart making false accusations in a shrill, loud voice. Aside from the fact that work by women in male-dominated arenas have always, at first, met with derisive labels such as these, Jacobs’ writing must have hit a little too close to the truth; otherwise she would have met with silence or, at most, dissolved away in the back pages of academic and trade journals. On the contrary, her work has become foundational for thinkers who are looking for ways to stretch beyond conventional city-planning methods, which are rooted in statistical analysis, and discern ways to at least pose, if not solve, the more complex human equation.

As the first important woman’s voice in the discussion of city planning, Jacobs is a pioneer. This is in addition to the impact her work has had on mainstream planning. Although there was much resistance to her ideas at first—and in some quarters the resistance remains—much of what she put forth, especially her considerations regarding zoning and urban renewal, has since been accepted as conventional wisdom.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Jackson provides historical background for Jacobs’ argument about decay, relating how federal policy, particularly the subsidizing of suburban home building following World War II, encouraged the growth of suburbs to the detriment of city neighborhoods.

Jacobs, Jane. Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life. New York: Random House, 1984. Here Jacobs enlarges on the themes presented in her earlier book The Economy of Cities, stretching beyond its focus on the economic processes of cities in and of themselves to locate their place in the national economy. She also includes a critique of macroeconomic theory for ignoring the importance of cities in the development of national wealth.

Jacobs, Jane. The Economy of Cities. New York: Random House, 1969. This book develops some of the themes implicit in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, focusing more directly on the intricate economic interrelations that make up the diversity present in a healthy city.

Lawrence, Fred, ed. Ethics in Making a Living: The Jane Jacobs Conference. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989. This book is a collection of essays, letters, and speeches presented at a conference in honor of Jacobs’ work. Included is an interview with Jacobs and an overview of her work, both helpful to the student new to Jacobs.

Mumford, Lewis. The Urban Prospect. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1968. While any of Mumford’s books on cities would be valuable reading to the student of cities, The Urban Prospect closely deals with the concerns of Jacobs’ book and as such constitutes a different perspective on the problems of cities. In one chapter, Mumford criticizes writers such as Jacobs who, he believes, romanticize the urban environment.