In Life Death

What is a good introduction and summary of “The Death & Life of Great American Cities”?

What is a good introduction and a chapter summary of the book “The Death & Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs that was released in 1961?


Jacobs’ book is an attack on “orthodox” modern city planning and city architectural design. Looking into how cities actually work, rather than how they should work according to urban designers and planners, Jacobs effectively describes the real factors affecting cities, and recommends strategies to enhance actual city performance.

Chapter Summary:

Jacobs briefly explains influential ideas in orthodox planning, starting from Howard’s Garden city, indeed a set of self-sufficient small towns, ideal for all but those with a plan for their own lives. Concurrently, City Beautiful was developed to sort out the monuments from the rest of the city, and assemble them in a unit. Later Le Corbusier devised the Radiant City , composed of skyscrapers within a park. Jacobs argues that all these are irrelevant to how cities work, and therefore moves on to explain workings of cities in the first part of the book.

She explores the three primary uses of sidewalks: safety, contact, and assimilating children. Street safety is promoted by pavements clearly marking a public/private separation, and by spontaneous protection with the eyes of both pedestrians and those watching the continual flow of pedestrians from buildings. To make this eye protection effective at enhancing safety, there should be “an unconscious assumption of general street support” when necessary, or an element of “trust”. As the main contact venue, pavements contribute to building trust among neighbors over time. Moreover, self-appointed public characters such as storekeepers enhance the social structure of sidewalk life by learning the news at retail and spreading it. Jacobs argues that such trust cannot be built in artificial public places such as a game room in a housing project. Sidewalk contact and safety, together, thwart segregation and racial discrimination.

A final function of sidewalks is to provide a non-matriarchy environment for children to play. This is not achieved in the presumably “safe” city parks – an assumption that Jacobs seriously challenges due to the lack of surveillance mechanisms in parks. Successful, functional parks are those under intense use by a diverse set of companies and residents. Such parks usually possess four common characteristics: intricacy, centering, sun, and enclosure. Intricacy is the variety of reasons people use parks, among them centering or the fact that parks have a place known as their centers. Sun, shaded in the summer, should be present in parks, as well as building to enclose parks.

Jacobs then explores a city neighborhood, tricky to define for while it is an organ of self-governance, it is not self-contained. Three levels of city neighborhoods; city, districts, and streets, can be identified. Streets should be able to effectively ask for help when enormous problems arise. Effective districts should therefore exist to represent streets to the city. City is the source of most public money – from federal or state coffers.