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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

4.31  ·  Rating Details ·  7,588 Ratings  ·  677 Reviews
A direct and fundamentally optimistic indictment of the short-sightedness and intellectual arrogance that has characterized much of urban planning in this century, The Death and Life of Great American Cities has, since its first publication in 1961, become the standard against which all endeavors in that field are measured. In prose of outstanding immediacy, Jane Jacobs wr ...more
Hardcover, 472 pages
Published September 10th 2002 by Random House (first published 1961)
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The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane JacobsThe Image of the City by Kevin LynchThe Geography of Nowhere by James Howard KunstlerA Pattern Language by Christopher W. AlexanderWalkable City by Jeff Speck
Top Urban Planning books Of All time
1st out of 92 books — 94 voters
The Devil in the White City by Erik LarsonFreakonomics by Steven D. LevittIn Cold Blood by Truman CapoteA Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill BrysonGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
Best Non-Fiction (non biography)
260th out of 3,964 books — 5,877 voters

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Community Reviews

(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Stephanie Sun
My favorite quotes from my re-read of this book last week (with city eye candy):
"The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts... Most of it is ostensibly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all." (p. 56)

"A good city street neighborhood achieves a marvel of balance between its people's determination to have essential privacy and their simultaneous wishes for differing degrees of contact, enjoyment or help from the people ar
Sep 24, 2007 Katy rated it liked it
I know some people who will balk at my 3-star rating, so I will explain myself. As a body of work, it is amazing and I adore Jane Jacobs. However, a good portion of this book still manages to be dull, despite being very important. (I can't help it!) I dig nonfiction, and I think 3 stars for a non-fiction book means it's pretty darn good, because who ever finished a cruddy non-fiction book unless they were taking a class? So, I read it voluntarily and give it 3 stars on the highly-sensitive and m ...more
Chris Herdt
May 27, 2010 Chris Herdt rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: Insomniacs
Recommended to Chris by: Murph, many others
The Death and Life of Great American Cities was both a frustrating and an illuminating book.

It was frustrating because it was long, and in many parts dull: I was yawning at 3 o'clock in the afternoon while drinking coffee and reading this. This book is a fabulous soporific and I recommend it heartily to insomniacs everywhere.

It was also frustrating because it is showing its age. Jacobs longs for diverse neighborhoods with fruit stands and butcher shops that aren't coming back, filled with bored
Dec 04, 2008 Siler rated it really liked it
An urban classic that remains applicable.
Jacobs makes a strong case and repeats it over and over.
Aug 25, 2016 Conor rated it it was ok
You know that feeling you get when someone expresses a political belief that you share, but explains the position using arguments that you find unavailing, anecdotal, or specious? That's what this book felt like. It was like de Tocqueville takes on modern American cities: inductive reasoning applied selectively to undergird a set of beliefs and proselytize for their superiority.

I had such high hopes for this one, but it dragged on relentlessly. I made it about halfway through this book before ab
Jan 25, 2009 Matt rated it it was amazing
Favorite passages:

To generate exuberant diversity in a city's streets and districts, four conditions are indispensable: The distrct must serve more than one purpose (preferably more than two), the blocks must be short, the buildings must vary in age and condition, and the population must be dense.

Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, which used to be considered by many critics one of the most beautiful of American avenues (it was, in those days, essentially a suburban avenue of large, fine houses with lar
Jul 03, 2011 Andrea rated it it was amazing
Shelves: theory, public_space
One of the books that all planners are supposed to have read, I know it's a bit shocking that I have only now read it. And regrettable. It deserves every ounce of it's status as a classic (if such status were to be measured in ounces). It's eminently readable (and isn't that a pleasure in a book of this kind), but also incredibly insightful and of course I love how it resonates so brilliantly with my experience living in many different cities while toppling most accepted planning theory. The mor ...more
Samantha Brockfield
Dec 26, 2008 Samantha Brockfield is currently reading it
Jane Jacobs is brilliant. Her insights on urban planning are both practical and exciting.
Ryan Holiday
Jun 22, 2012 Ryan Holiday rated it it was amazing
This is one of the most important books about cities ever written. It's what helps you understand why cities work, why they don't work, what makes a neighborhood, what destroys neighborhoods and how almost everything city planners and governments think matters, doesn't. Seth Roberts is probably the biggest Jane Jacobs fan there is. He's what she calls an insider-outsider (insider in terms of understanding, outsider in terms of career). She was an activist and a student who understood the system ...more
Nov 22, 2009 Pam rated it really liked it
This took me a while to read because it was easy to put down. This book is famous for being one of the first sources of critique of American city planning, and many of her arguments seem to hold water even today. This said, I constantly asked myself "where is the science?" while reading this. I wonder if it had been published in this decade, would she be allowed to draw so many conclusions based almost entirely on personal observation and opinion. My assessment of this book mirrors my judgment o ...more
Jan 01, 2009 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Teagan
My friend Todd’s finishing up his PhD in Urban Planning at Louisville this year, and he’s been telling me since he started the program that I should read this book, especially since I live in New York City.

I bought the book awhile ago, but never got around to reading it; it just didn’t seem to be my kind of thing. “It’s more your thing than mine,” Todd said. I didn’t know what he meant until I decided to incorporate it into a freshman orientation class I teach on the history and mystery of New
Jul 19, 2014 Jeremy rated it it was amazing
Shelves: sociological
I've never read anything about city planning or urban studies before, so this was all quite new to me. Jacobs creates a vivid, wide ranging critique of the dominant forms of city planning, which are driven as she compellingly points out, by stupidly reactionary, romantic notions about how people should be made to live. I'd never really thought in a concerted way before about how things like sidewalk width, the ages of buildings, the the location of public buildings etc. would effect how people m ...more
blue-collar mind
Nov 02, 2015 blue-collar mind rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those fighting for place, you goddamn New Urbanists who miss the point
I know that if I had met Jane Jacobs, I would have liked her. I know this from reading this book, and in it, meeting a peppery but professorial woman who draws her line firmly in the dirt. I like people like that, especially those who don't set themselves up as experts over their fellow citizens.

I was dazzled by this book when I found it years ago; it crystalized the arguments I had stumbled through to explain what I liked about different places, and didn't like about others, and it told me that
Jul 28, 2011 Malcolm rated it really liked it
Shelves: urban-studies
It is easy to write Jacobs off as a utopian, but this book, derived from a women's-eye view of living in New York's Greenwich Village in the late 1950s gives us a great sense of what the city could be and her recurrent struggles with and voer Robert Moses's attempts to redesign NYC in the 1960s privide us with a model of urban struggle and defencs of urban space. It remains a blistering critique of the impacts of urban design, of the inadequacies of design-from-the-top, and a powerful case of th ...more
Oct 20, 2008 Andrew added it
Shelves: urbanism
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Especially to anyone who's interested in the ways in which cities operate, but also to pretty much anyone else. Ms. Jacobs was hella prescient in her emphasis on cityspace needing to be used more than produced, and goes about demonstrating the failures of modernist planning and drawing a line towards a new method of development in which the city-dweller takes primacy. Also, it warns about the dangers of gentrification years before anyone else was think ...more
Mark Sacha
File The Death and Life of Great American Cities with the great disappointments - it falls very far short for me of what its reputation implies, either as some some sort of life-affirming tract about the inherent goodness of urban life or just a very astute, eloquent argument about the dynamics of American cities. Both of these more or less cohere to the stated program of the book, but its argumentation is often unconvincing and tied up in a lot of bland, prescriptive urban planning ideology, wh ...more
Feb 02, 2014 Anna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I was prompted to read this book, which had sat on my shelf for a little while, by its inclusion in an essay reading list. As I needed to mark the essays, it was time to read the thing. I enjoyed the majority of it, although naturally some chapters have aged better than others. That in itself is interesting, though, and at times sad. Jacobs writes to challenge the utopian, modernist, grand-scale, top-down, social engineering approach to planning that prevailed (I over-generalise) between the ear ...more
Feb 16, 2009 Julia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
My mother is a historic preservationist in Greenwich Village, and I grew up a block away from Jacobs' favorite example of a well-functioning city block. How can I even review this book?

I'm looking forward to reading some more recent of Jacobs' writings, because the context of this book is almost as important as the argument itself. To her credit, Jacobs fully acknowledges this. She's writing at a time when cities, including New York, are dying -- dangerous, shrinking, getting poorer. And forty y
Finally finished! I think Jacobs has retained a reputation for a certain cosy New-Urbanist kitchiness, and that's sadly unfair.

The first few chapters, with their endless gushing lyricization of the "urban ballet" romantic descriptions of rows of stores on some Greenwhich village street did have my teeth mildly on edge. (They put me in mind of nothing so much as one of George RR Martin's descriptive passages of food or flags.) However, moving past that, her underlying view of the city is actuall
Jennifer Richardson
May 30, 2013 Jennifer Richardson rated it it was amazing
FINALLY finished this book, but it was worth trucking through because I learned so much! Urban planning is something I knew literally nothing about, and now I am able to hold a reasonably intelligent conversation about some of the issues- to the point where some nosey stranger said "ahh you guys are planners aren't you?" This book is surprisingly easy to read, and Jane Jacobs approaches the flaws of current urban planning tactics with amusingly caustic commentary, giving enough background to inf ...more
Mark Abersold
Aug 27, 2014 Mark Abersold rated it it was amazing
This is pretty much the bible of modern urban planning, and it's definitely a great read if that is a subject that interests you. It delves pretty deeply into the topic matter and as such if you're not a city wonk you might not find it interesting (may I recommend Jeff Speck's Walkable City instead?).

That said, I found it very interesting, truthful, and likely to surprise many preconceived notions of how cities should be planned. If you're involved in any sort of city planning or real estate dev
Timothy Riley
This is the second time I've read this book but I remembered that it was worth a second look due to how much more I know about the subject now. Jacobs discusses the numerous new age (for the 50's) philosophies for urban planning and how destructive they were to city spaces. She specifically mentions the Garden City planners who walled off city spaces and brought communal areas into interior spaces like courtyards instead of attaching them to the street life. This has lead to overwhelming crime i ...more
Jun 12, 2016 tJacksonrichards rated it it was amazing
I was drawn to this book as part of a specific process of civic self-discovery as well as an attempt to better perceive how classism and racism are facilitated and mediated by american cities. There is also the considerable podcast-blog-OpEd-ThinkPiece-FluffPiece-LectureSeries-documentary cottage industry surrounding Jacobs and bestowing to her writing, her activism and her now legendary confrontation with Robert Moses an immense import, an almost mythical aspect, such that one is indeed incline ...more
Dec 01, 2015 blakeR rated it really liked it
Shelves: favorites, anth-sosh
A fascinating and revelatory work on what makes cities great. Apparently this is one of the most influential books in all of city planning and even a layman like myself can see why. What she proposes -- 1) Mixed uses to keep streets active throughout day, 2) Short blocks allowing for variation in routes and ultimately more foot traffic, 3) Buildings of various ages and states to allow for a diversity of tenants' incomes and 4) Increased density -- seems so incredibly commonsense that you wonder ...more
Sep 05, 2015 Tim rated it it was amazing
I found this book by Googling for "best city planning books" and picking a book that looked like it was near the top of everyone's lists. It turned out to be exactly the right book to read--not because it's the best written or most accurate book on the subject, but because it's so influential that you can't talk about modern city planning without talking about Jane Jacobs. Jane Jacobs is to modern planning theory what Newton was to physics, or Turing was to computer science. Her basic ideas--peo ...more
Dec 15, 2011 Amélie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Juste un tout petit mot sur ce livre, que j'ai lu surtout pour l'école --

Aussi accessible & rafraîchissant que peut l'être un livre qui parle essentiellement de planification urbaine -- c'est-à-dire : pas beaucoup si c'est pas le genre de choses qui vous intéresse, mais extrêmement beaucoup si vous êtes habitués de lire des études de cas ou des théorisations hyper-sèches sur la ville (oui oui, je parle de moi). Jacobs a une façon très intuitive d'aborder les enjeux qui l'intéressent, & e
Dec 09, 2010 Apio rated it liked it
Of course, ultimately I want to do away with the city. It represents the values of civilization which boil down to alienated and centralized power and wealth. Yet there are aspects of the city that I enjoy, particularly the opportunity for chance encounters with stimulating strangers. Where human beings do not congregate in large numbers, the opportunities for such encounters are much reduced or even disappear. But contemporary cities are built to serve the needs of capitalism and the state. And ...more
Chris Ledermuller
Jul 05, 2012 Chris Ledermuller rated it it was amazing
Shelves: urbanism, nonfiction
This is the first book that brought Jane Jacobs to prominence, helped establish her career of electic, observational writings, and most importantly, it is a transformational piece.

Published in the early 1960s, she had given the first voice to the voiceless city that was only being silenced as history progressed. "Death and Life" made its intentions clear: It was an attack on the very notion of urban planning. Jacobs stepped up against what the conventional wisdom of her time thought was done in
Apr 05, 2010 Alan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: City planners and suchlike wannabes
Recommended to Alan by: Jo Walton, though indirectly
Savage, brilliant, and brilliantly savage, this scathing indictment of sterile and soulless city planning remains, sadly, as relevant today as when it was written, some 50 years ago. Jacobs pulls no punches whatsoever when she's dissecting problems in the Bronx, in the works of Le Corbusier and Lewis Mumford, with the pernicious effects that automobiles have on living cities, or in the general case of urban renewal and the single-use, single-aged "neighborhood," about which she says,
"It is dead.
Apr 15, 2009 Shek rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: urban-studies
A smart and prescient book, comprehensively explaining the dismal failures of utopian and destructive city planning as practiced most egregiously in the US from the '50s through the '70s (and, in one form or another, today as well).

Jacobs does a neat magic trick here, confirming the goodness of so many aspects of well-functioning cities that seem instinctively right - for instance, the benefits of streets with mixed uses (especially those that consistently attract foot traffic at all times of d
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  • The Image of the City
  • The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America's Man-Made Landscape
  • Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream
  • The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects
  • Cities of Tomorrow: An Intellectual History of Urban Planning and Design in the Twentieth Century
  • Learning from Las Vegas: The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form
  • The Works: Anatomy of a City
  • Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City
  • The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces
  • Edge City: Life on the New Frontier
  • Cities for People
  • Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability
  • A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction
  • Great Streets
  • City Life: Urban Expectations In A New World
  • Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan
  • Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States
  • Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier
Jane Jacobs, OC, O.Ont (May 4, 1916 – April 25, 2006) was an American-born Canadian writer and activist with primary interest in communities and urban planning and decay. She is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), a powerful critique of the urban renewal policies of the 1950s in the United States. The book has been credited with reaching beyond planning issues to inf ...more
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“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” 150 likes
“By its nature, the metropolis provides what otherwise could be given only by traveling; namely, the strange.” 36 likes
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