Return to a Classic: The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Posted by PHENND on May 25, 2020

In our new all the time home time, it’s good to finally have time to read when not staring at the walls. I’ve returned to finally finish a community development classic—The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs. Jacobs attacks the discriminatory practices inherent in planning systems. She also puts the patriarchy on trial, noting how technocrats constantly patronize their supposed beneficiaries.

Wait, Ben, why are you talking about this here? Awe, well Ms. Jacobs had a few choice words to share about planning’s effects on our education system. First, in talking about the uses of sidewalks and their impact on community safety, one of her conclusions is that this lack of perceived safety leads to hollowing out of schools. She pinpoints middle-class families from Chatham Village who, because of their privilege of choice, transfer their kids away from the neighborhood schools into other communities or private institutions. They do this because there is no community back and forth, no synergy, no dialogue between neighbors. Therefore, they have built mistrust in the community due to self-isolating. She further goes on to explain what effective uses of sidewalks should be, and how historically the continual use of them by community members has maintained “eyes on the street.” This community surveillance ensures block safety. As this social force deteriorates, she perceives, the overall neighborhood decays. She later goes on to say that ‘good sidewalks’ produces ‘spontaneous play’, which is far superior to the structured play of playgrounds. Her preference for sidewalk play leads her to disparage the funds funneled into playgrounds. Back in 1961, she stated how resources could be better allocated to communities through something other than a couple of aluminum bars hodgepodged together. Jacobs selected schools as needing it more, remarking, “City schools need something approaching a 50-percent increase in teachers to handle severe problems and also reduce normal class sizes to a figure permitting better education.” This seems still very resonant today and slightly disheartening that there is still inertia to such progress.

After discussing streets and sidewalks, she delivers her verdict on neighborhoods. Good ones, she says, are those that know what their problems are and approach them directly. Bad neighborhoods have needs that overwhelm them and thereby leave them helpless. We can think that better homes, better schools, and better green spaces are ‘touchstones’ for better neighborhoods; however, nothing exists within isolation, and all sociopolitical factors must work in unison. For schools, she highlights this by noting:

Important as good schools are, they prove totally undependable at rescuing bad neighborhoods and at creating good neighborhoods. Nor does a good school building guarantee a good education. Schools, like parks, are apt to be volatile creatures of their neighborhoods (as well as being creatures of larger policy). In bad neighborhoods, schools are brought to ruination, physically and socially; while successful neighborhoods improve their schools by fighting for them. [emphasis added]

I tend to agree with these simple metrics for success. During her time in battling city planners, she noted that technocrats used income and poverty as determinants for failed neighborhoods. She dismissed this, noting that more often than not neighborhoods labeled as slums were very successful neighborhoods and improper unslumming—be it urban renewal or gentrification—undermine them. This shifting of people through dubious means leads to an unstable school population, in turn leading to schools going in and out of funding.

In all, Jane points to failures in local government as the culprit. She notes, “And our successes are successes at localized self-government. I am using self-government in its broadest sense, meaning both the informal and formal self-management of society.” She seeks to abolish orthodox planning schemes for more hyper-localized methods, e.g. block-by-block or district-based.

Jane grew up in Scranton but moved for work to New York. Jacobs formative work reviewed what American planning had done wrong up until her publication in 1961. While some of the mid-century rhetoric can be a little hard to swallow at times, her work does a masterful job at inductively walking the reader through how our cities began to decay. Her work has key Philadelphia spotlights, notably with an undercurrent of an attack on Edmund Bacon’s hollowing effects of Open Space Planning. Her work continues to inspire community developers to put people first. As Jane writes, “Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.”

Overall it was a great read. Jane’s uses no-holds-bar language laced with sincerity and matched with dogged pragmatism. She confronts the systems of the day, and ultimately how they discriminate against marginalized communities (back then being non-Anglo Americans, especially people of color). It is a highly recommended primer for anyone who deeply cares about their community and wants to keep it progressive. You can order a copy for yourself here. Enjoy!

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