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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

4.31  ·  Rating details ·  13,388 ratings  ·  1,116 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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Roy Lotz
This is a common assumption: that human beings are charming in small numbers and noxious in large numbers.

I picked up this book immediately after finishing The Power Broker, and I highly recommend this sequence to anyone who has the time. The conflict between Robert Moses, czar-like planner of New York City for almost half a century, and Jane Jacobs, ordinary citizen and activist, has become the source of legend. There is a book about it, Wrestling with Moses, a well-made documentary, Citize
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
Impassioned, if dated, The Death and Life of Great American Cities sets out to catalogue the conditions that make a large city diverse, safe, and vibrant. Jacobs begins her work by critiquing modernist urban planning as pseudo scientific and dangerously out of touch with reality, before she turns to examining why and how some city neighborhoods prosper while others decline. Focusing mainly on New York, her home, the author offers great insight into what makes urban life teem with vitality, and t ...more
Mar 27, 2020 added it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Jan-Maat by: Ted
Jane Jacobs' book The Death and Life of Great American Cities has been on my mental to-read list since I read The Power Broker, which was long ago. It was not the book I imagined it to be, Robert Moses here lurks mostly unmentioned darting behind some of the paragraphs, very rarely making an appearance in an actual sentence.

Jacobs view of the city struck me as Darwinian - the more life there is, the more life there can be. The city is an ecosystem, and diversity promotes diversity. The problem i
Sep 20, 2007 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
Apr 12, 2010 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
Conor Ahern
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
Ryan Holiday
Jun 22, 2012 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
Dec 04, 2008 rated it really liked it
An urban classic that remains applicable.
Jacobs makes a strong case and repeats it over and over.
Jul 03, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: public_space, theory
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
Oct 14, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Evidently an important work within the author's field, this book deals with the concept of community and the nature of people, and the elements of a city that make those things possible. Many examples from both Boston and Manhattan are listed, but the majority of the cited/reference material is very antiqued and has not been updated since the author prepared to write the book in the late 1950s, and it was originally published in 1961.

Since I used to live very close to NYC, and now reside in Bost
Nov 22, 2009 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
Jul 28, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Jan 24, 2009 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
Michael Nielsen
Jan 06, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
One of the best books I've ever read, and one of the few that divide my life into two parts: before reading "Death and Life", & after. I can't walk through a city without seeing it through Jacobs' eyes. ...more
Dec 26, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Jane Jacobs is brilliant. Her insights on urban planning are both practical and exciting.
Jan 25, 2014 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
Michael Siliski
Feb 26, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don't use the term "tour de force" often, but...

This is an incredible book. Written in 1961, it dissects the urban planning trends of the first half of the 20th century, and then proceeds to convincingly tear them to shreds. Rather than rely on abstract aesthetic principles concocted on a draft board, Jacobs starts from first principles and street-level, observational data, constructing a revolutionary view of how cities work and what makes them great -- liveliness, activity, opportunity, div
Jun 04, 2010 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
Oct 13, 2008 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
Nov 24, 2018 rated it liked it
"Why have cities not, long since, been identified, understood and treated as problems of organized complexity?"

"Dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves."
Mar 28, 2008 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
Aug 25, 2013 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
Roksolana Mashkova
It’s a great book which taught me to see what works well and what doesn’t in the city where I live (Tel Aviv). It showed me why so many of my favorite parts of the city work so perfectly. It also taught me to keep my phone in my bag and look around and analyze the city, as an entertaining and educational way to move around. I have to mention especially the light but articulate, humorous but precise language it’s written in. It’s accessible and the theory put forward here is very clear. Although ...more
Katie/Doing Dewey
Jan 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Shelves: cities, recommended
I chose to read this classic of urban planning, published in the 1950's, because Rachel at Never Enough Novels pointed me to Modern Mrs. Darcy's list of favorite urban planning books. (Actually, all of these books are on that list, but this is the one the list made me feel I just had to read). This book was a gem. It had a few outdated ideas about gender roles, but was pretty progressive on race and otherwise surprisingly timely (perhaps an unfortunate indication of how far we've not come). Both ...more
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
Mar 22, 2013 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
An odd thing happened to me while reading this book: the narrator was male, but because I'd recently watched a documentary about Jane Jacobs that included a lot of contemporary audio footage and had her voice in my head, I remember it in her voice. Brains are funny that way; they make assumptions and fill in gaps with what they think they know. Jacobs's talent is in not doing that, in looking at and describing things exactly as they are--from big, philosophical things, like what privacy means in ...more
Jan 29, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I am so deeply impressed by the common-sense writing, and ideas, presented in this book. You will be astounded it was published in 1961 - sadly it feels just as relevant today. We have learned so little about what makes great cities work, and how to foster them. I can only conclude that no one who actually works in city governments has read the book, or things would look quite different for us. It’s a tome for sure - I’m a fast reader and it took me a long time to get through, and I wish I could ...more
Jacob McConville
Dec 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Jane Jacobs is based
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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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