Jane Jacobs, Key Principles for Building Better Cities
In this midst of a pandemic, when many cities around the world have imposed lockdowns and curfews one after the other, it has become increasinly more important to think about cities — and about our well-being within them.
In the near future, the built environment will grow, and change, beyond our imagination. Projections show that urbanization, the gradual shift of the human population from rural to urban areas, combined with the overall growth of the world’s population could add another 2.5 billion people to urban areas by 2050.
There is no doubt that urban areas will take on exponential importance— not only they will be at the center of 68% of the world population’s everyday life, but also, at the center of many important topics, ranging from human well-being to climate change, and everything in between.
While these changes take place, it may be extremely valuable to remind ourselves of Jane Jacobs’ work in her book The Life and Death of Great American Cities, first published in 1961, so as to make sure that in building bigger cities, we do not repeat the mistakes that have been made in the past.
Focusing on the topic of human well-being and interconnectedness, as well as on the safety and economic vitality of cities, this article will summarize Jacobs’ main points.
A big first chunk of Jacobs’ analysis on cities focuses on the sidewalks, neighborhoods, and neighborhood playgrounds and parks, with many of her observations being from her lifetime spent in New York City.
Sidewalks as a means to ensure street safety.
The sidewalks, she argues, serve many purposes besides carrying pedestrians. She views the primary task of sidewalks to be ensuring street safety for the city as a whole. A city district that fails to ensure street safety makes people fear the streets. Jacobs actually discusses sidewalks as causing eiether an upward or downward spiral. In the latter, the more people fear the streets, the more they avoid the streets, and the more dangerous those streets then become. In this particular example, the city as a whole then becomes more unsafe.
Jacobs argues that the public peace of cities, and particularly of a city’s sidewalks, is not primarily kept by the police, but by an intricate network of voluntary controls and standards among people themselves. On busy city streets passers-by, street-level merchants, and residents, all work together effortlessly and naturally to keep an eye on the street provide few opportunities for street crime. In order this to happen, a city must abide by the following:
First, public and private space must be clearly demarcated.
An important condition for safe city streets is a clear demarcation between public and private space. These spaces should not merge into one another as they typically do in suburban settings.
Second, there must be eyes on the street
These eyes belong to what Jacobs calls the “natural proprietors of the street”, including residents, and passers-by. As such, buildings must be looking outward towards the city’s streets.
Third, sidewalks must have users fairly continuously.
Jacobs argues that the mixture of workplaces and residences within a single neighborhood generally assures that there are always people around keeping the streets safe with their presence.
Then, she also states that there should also be stores, bars, cafés, and restaurants within those same neighborhoods. These places attract people not only during the day, but at night as well, and thus, ensure that a city’s streets will almost never be empty.
Sidewalks as a means to foster contacts.
As opposed to the erroneous Orthodox planning judgement that she mentions extensively in her book, Jacobs discusses the benefits of busy street life on sidewalks, and their vitality for the city.
The erroneous judgment that Jacobs mentions goes as follows:
Reformers have long observed city people loitering on busy corners, hanging around in candy stores and bars, and drikning soda pop on stoops, and have passed a judgement, the gist of which is: “This is deplorable. If these people had decent homes and a more private or bosky outdoor place, they wouldn’t be on the street!” (Jacobs, 55)
Instead, Jacobs argues that actually, busy city streets are incredibly important in order to create a feeling of public identity, a web of public respect and trust, as well as a resource for the neighborhood as a whole.
City districts allow public encounters on sidewalks and networks to form between people spontaneously and effortlessly, and thus, also enable metropolitan life to thrive.
Impersonal city streets, on the other hand, create a sense of anonymity where isolated residents and occasional passers-by do not see, or feel responsible for, occurrences on the streets. Jacobs argues that this is actually what tends to happen in many public housing projects, where the lack of a vibrant public life causes residents to isolate themselves, thus enabling crime to arise.
Of course, other factors may also contribute to crime in these particular areas, but her argument is definitely well-founded.
Sidewalks as a means to assimilate children.
Regarding sidewalks and their relation to children, Jacobs mentions yet another erroneous belief of Orthodox planning. This conclusion states that streets compel children to discuss innapropriate matters and learn “new forms of curription as efficiently as if they were in reform school”. Consequently, Orthodox planning proposed environments such as playgrounds and parks, which are ‘always cleaner than city streets’, as better suited for children, and streets to be strictly avoided by them.
Yet Jacobs tells us this is not the case. She mentions several examples from housing projects during the 1950s and 1960s, where the city streets were replaced by the playgrounds and parks of these super-blocks, and where crime amoung adolescent street gangs actually increased. In general, these crimes place took place between gangs of housing projects, and within the confines of their isolated, unsupervised, and sterile playgrounds and parks.
In her discussion she mentions the following anecdotal example from a time her own son was running away from a group of boys;
“I was scared they would catch me when I had to pass the playground. If they caught me there I’d be sunk!” (Jacobs, 77)
Instead, Jacobs argues that lively and supervised streets offer children supervision, safety, an array of diverse activities to pursue, and also, an unspecialized outdoor home base from which to play, to hang around in, and to help form their notions of the world.
Parks as mirrors of their own neighborhoods.
At the center of Jacobs’ analysis of city neighborhoods, she discusses parks, and argues that parks cannot transform neighborhoods and automatically uplift them as planners have often thought they might. Instead of transforming a neighborhood, parks actually mirror the neighborhood.
Popular and livable neighborhoods with diverse uses, like streets, attract people into them, and thus, attract people into its parks. Like the streets, these parks become vibrant places where metropolitan life can thrive effortlessly.
Unpopular parks in unpopular neighborhoods attract very little people, and like unpopular streets, attract crime. Parks in these kinds of neighborhoods are not only troubling because of their missed opportunities, but also because of their negative effects on the neighborhood in its entirety. In her own words:
“The more successfully a city mingles everyday diversity of uses and users in its everyday streets, the more successfully, casually, and economically, its people thereby enliven and support well-located parks that can in thus give back grace and delight to their neighborhoods instead of vacuity.” (Jacobs, 111)
Neighborhoods as a complex and continuous fabric of intersecting streets and uses.
In her final discussion on city streets and neighborhoods, Jacobs discusses self-government within cities, and what makes city neighborhoods successful. She argues that the only kinds of entities that ‘demonstrate useful functions in real life self government’ are the city as a whole, streets, and districts.
Effective neighborhood physical planning for cities, she states, should therefore aim to foster lively and intersecting streets that have no distinct beginnings and ends separating them as indivudal units, with parks, squares, and public buildings that become part of the street’s fabric, kniting together ‘the fabric’s complexity and multiple use’ (129). As opposed to isolated street neighborhoods associated with long self-isolating blocks, she defends lively interconnected streets as a means to foster a continuous network throughout a city’s district and emphasize the ‘functional identity’ of those areas — allowing districts be more efficiently self-governed.
In sum, if we want to build better cities, the focus needs to be on creating vibrant city streets and vibrant city neighborhoods — from there, all the rest will flourish.
Arthur Leipzig (1918–2014) was born in Brooklyn, New York. Leipzig shot thousands of rolls of film over five decades, producing beautifully constructed yet socially powerful photographs that take a sincere look at street life. Among the most memorable are photo essays on children’s street games, city workers atop the Brooklyn Bridge, Coney Island, and V-Day. (Howard Greenberg Gallery)