The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Book review by Deane Barker tags: infrastructure

I have wanted to read this book for ages. I have a weird fascination with urban planning, and this book is held up as seminal. It’s from the 60s, and was written by the legendary Jane Jacobs.

What I find interesting about the book is where it starts: with a chapter on sidewalks. I remember thinking, “Wow, we really just dived right in there, didn’t we?” There’s little in the way of introduction, just – boom – we’re talking about sidewalks.

As the book wore on, it became apparent that we started there because, well, where else would we start? The author has so much knowledge about urban planning and the effect of design on cities, that there is ironically no good starting place. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and that step may as well have been sidewalks. She has so much information to impart, that sidewalks were as good a place as any.

The book is dense, though the writing style is deceptively breezy. She works through major issues in city planning, step-by-step. The book doesn’t feel dated, strangely.

It’s clear that she’s a New Yorker, because NYC plays heavily in most examples and chapters. She has a weird fascination with Boston’s North End too, though it’s changed considerably since the book was written.

The book has a liberal slant. There are intersections with politics and public policy, and she clearly comes down on the Democratic side of things. All throughout, it’s obvious that Jacob’s views cities as thriving milieus of clashing cultures. She’s not trying to create orderly utopias – rather, she’s trying to moderate the collision of lifestyles. How do we all live together in close proximity in such a way that it causes the least harm and strengthens our communal ties?

Book Info

Jane Jacobs
  • I have read this book. According to my records, I completed it on .
  • A hardcover copy of this book is currently in my home library.

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