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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

For thousands of years, cities have existed, bringing together large numbers of people in common living conditions, complemented by the infrastructure to support the needs of these people, centers of commerce, and the like. In a modern context, cities are planned and executed with practiced precision, in an attempt to create an orderly setting for what has become a hectic way of life in light of the complexities of modern life.

Jane Jacobs’ book, “The Death and Life of American Cities”, provides an in-depth analysis and discussion of the major American urban centers, as well as their problems, interpersonal dynamics, and other details.

In this paper, several key areas of Jacobs’ book will be discussed, and ultimately, a better understanding of the topic will be gained through the research. Main Points of the Author Broadly stated, Jacobs’ main point in writing “The Death and Life of American Cities” was to challenge the conventional wisdom of urban planning.

To be more specific, Jacobs, in her book, makes these main points: • THE ROLE OF THE ELEMENTS OF A CITY- Jacobs takes each element of a city, such as parks, streets, sidewalks, neighborhoods, governmental agencies and economic elements, and discusses them not in dry academic terms, but in a flowing, literary style that informs and entertains at the same time.

Overall, her analysis of cities’ elements leads to a better understanding of the inner workings of cities as a whole.

• PROBLEMS WITHIN CITIES- Moving beyond the anatomy of the city, so to speak, Jacobs discusses the various problems that exist within cities themselves.

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These problems are discussed in a subsequent section of this paper. • THE ISSUE OF DIVERSITY- From an interpersonal point of view, Jacobs addresses the issue of diversity within cities; why and how it exists, as well as components within cities that ironically bring about and complicate diversity simultaneously.

Jacobs’ View of Problems in the Cities and Modern Response to Them Relating back to the main points of Jacobs’ book, she identified and discussed several main problems in cities, some of which are caused by cities and some which cities try to and have resolved over the years. The central problem in cities, as cited by the author, is in the very design and nature of cities themselves, which lead to other problems.

Cities are, by their very nature, exceptionally crowded, impersonal, and hectic, and due to these conditions, the walls, fences and buildings within the cities actually inhibit the ability of people to interact, build relationships, and ultimately learn how to understand and respect one another (Jacobs, 1992). In this light, it is fair to say that Jacobs does not believe in the old adage that good fences make good neighbors; rather, she feels that cities should have open spaces that encourage human interaction and prevent the isolation and disconnection that is found in many modern cities.

Ironically, within the open spaces that Jacobs advocates, she likewise finds a problem with them. To be more specific, the problem cited with open spaces are that they often attract, along with honest citizens, those who would do harm to others. Jacobs uses sidewalks as an example; while she acknowledges that wide sidewalks are needed in cities to promote the efficient movement of people from one place to another, she also makes the assertion that sidewalks are in some instances pipelines of illegal activity, as they allow nefarious individuals to mingle and move along with the honorable city dwellers.

Lastly, Jacobs admits that another problem with cities is that along with being centers of culture, socialization and commerce, they are also magnets for crowding, poverty, crime and violence. In this paradox lies a sad irony. In the modern day, many American cities have responded to the problems that Jacobs cited several decades ago in her book; the past several decades have seen major cities undertaking reclamation projects which remove old, blighted buildings and replace them with modern, gleaming buildings that attract economic development.

Government funding has increased the numbers of law enforcement personnel deployed on city streets in order to combat crime and make streets safe for city dwellers to move freely about the city, spend money, interact with their neighbors, and let their children run and play. Open spaces have been designed to attract people, while discouraging criminal activity through the constant presence of people congregating in peaceful gatherings, free from danger and violence. The net effect of all of these positive changes is to improve the modern city from the problem-plagued examples of Jacobs to a positive prototype of civilized urban living.

Conditions Needed to Generate Diversity Few would dispute the importance of diversity to create vibrant, positive cities; to be more specific, the correct type of diversity that would be most beneficial for a city would be termed as “interactive diversity”, meaning that the diversity that features varied ethnic and racial groups living together peacefully in the city, not being segregated, as segregation is one of the main ingredients for tension and violence in any city.

Jacobs holds diversity in high regard, and makes the assertion in her book that diversity is a natural by product in an effectively functioning city. However, this diversity does not happen by itself; rather, there are definite conditions that are needed in order to generate diversity, which Jacobs addresses as well. In Jacobs’ opinion, there are several conditions needed to generate diversity, including the harmony between different groups as discussed in the beginning of this section.

Moreover, Jacobs feels that diversity needs open, common areas in cities, such as parks and public squares, which encourage the interaction of all types of people. Also, these open areas need to be kept clean and safe for diversity to fully bloom and last. Importance of Streets in Jacobs’ Opinion Streets, in Jacobs’ opinion, are vitally important to any city; in her words, they are the vital organs of a city. In other words, streets are what keeps all of the processes of the city moving-commerce, law enforcement, tourism, etc.

When discussing streets, Jacobs advocates making streets as wide as possible for maximum flow of traffic, while still maintaining the width of sidewalks which, as mentioned earlier, are also critically important in Jacobs’ view. Qualities Jacobs Looks for in Streets Like sidewalks, Jacobs looks for wide, well lighted streets that are used like the arteries of the human body, carrying the lifeblood of a city, which in this case are the people, commercial vehicles, and public transportation needed for citizens to lead productive urban lives. Jacobs’ Opinion of Public Housing

Few would dispute the fact that cities need public housing; within any given population, there are those who have special needs or are economically disadvantaged and require public housing as a means of being able to live safely and affordably. While Jacobs does not dispute this fact, she does put forth the opinion that public housing, while not designed to do so, is a magnet for crime, violence, and strife between different groups. However, she also makes the suggestion that properly operated public housing does serve the greater good and should be allowed to exist.

Jacobs’ ideal view of effective public housing incorporates her classic vision of housing which does not use high walls, fencing, and infrastructure to alienate and isolate people. Ideally, one gets the impression that she would like to see public housing that includes the open, public spaces that she also approves of for the proliferation of diversity. Whatever the case, it is evident that Jacobs feels that public housing can play a positive role in the urban setting. Examples of Current Cities That Have Incorporated Some of Jacobs’ Ideas

There are current, modern American cities that have incorporated some of Jacobs’ ideas, showing not only that Jacobs ideas were valid at the time that she put them forth, but also that they are still relevant today. With this in mind, there are three American cities in the eastern, middle, and western portions of the United States that fit Jacobs’ vision for the vibrant modern city. New York City, even in spite of tremendous setbacks like the horrible events of September 11, 2001, has vastly improved over the past several decades to once again become a relevant center of culture, commerce, and diversity.

The catalyst behind much of this improvement has been the government of the city which, despite the political orientation of any given administration, all have embraced the reduction of crime, the rebuilding of parks and theaters, and a commitment to make the city clean, efficient, and welcoming for residents and visitors alike. Cincinnati, Ohio, a long-time depressed city full of blight and crime, is in the midst of a modern renaissance, in no small part due to the adoption of some of the urban planning techniques that Jacobs advocated in “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”.

More specifically, Cincinnati has used one of the focal points of the city, its famous waterfront, to create a common area that fosters productive business, friendly interaction, and a safe place to live, work and play. On the western coast of the United States sits the city of San Francisco, a city with a proud tradition which had unfortunately fallen into disrepair and despair in the late 1970s due to the blight of drugs and its accompanying criminal activities.

However, in the early 21st century, San Francisco finds itself enjoying a diverse influx of Asian and Latino people who work hard and wish to get involved and improve the city. The net effect is a better city, as Jacobs would want it. It is accurate to say that Jacobs ideas, far from outdated words on the page of a book that was written decades ago, are still serving as a sort of textbook for the revitalization of the modern American city. Summary Jane Jacobs, in her book, shows how modern cities must undergo a sort of death before they can rise to new glories.

Far from just being critical, however, she offers flowing commentary on what can be done to improve cities and the things that the cities must do in order to undergo this positive transformation. Perhaps, in closing, this is the most significant thing that can be taken away from an analysis of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”. Going forward, as has been evidenced from the successes of other cities, Jacobs’ ideas should be more widely embraced for the wellbeing of all of urban America. References Jacobs, J. (1992). Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books.

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities. (2016, Aug 27). Retrieved from

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