45 Years Later, a Book on the Urban Life Cycle and Community Issues Still Resonates

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 27, 2006

Jane Jacobs, who died last month at age 89, is best known as the author of the influential 1961 book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities." Much of what she wrote is still relevant to 21st century challenges and discourse about smart growth, planning and land use regulation, urban revitalization, historic preservation and architectural design.

A resident of New York's Greenwich Village, she sensitively observed and then described the realities of urban form and urban life. Using her observations as evidence, she assailed prevailing theories and practices of city planning and redevelopment.

The primary targets of her critiques were urban renewal, homogenous architecture and city expressways, all post-World War II manifestations of presumably good intentions: to demolish physically deteriorated, crime-ridden, economically fallow inner-city slums; to build on cleared real estate for middle-class residents; and to relieve inner-city traffic congestion while easing through-city auto travel via the new interstate highway system.

Urban expressways were dividing neighborhoods and engendering blight nearby. Modern architects were designing functional but monotonous, featureless buildings. And urban renewal was yielding neighborhoods with little demographic or functional variety, neighborhoods that displaced people and relocated blight rather than eliminating it.

These practices, which seemed like good ideas at the time, became discredited, in part because of Jacobs' widely read book. She inspired people, especially planning and architecture students, to think about issues given little consideration before 1961.

In "Death and Life," she lucidly described how the social, cultural, economic and physical characteristics of city neighborhoods are the fundamental source of urban vitality. She argued that specific attributes -- higher density, mixed uses, pedestrian-level shops with housing and workspaces above, colorful retail signs, well-lighted streets and sidewalks, a variety of architectural detail, a mix of new and old buildings -- are indispensable to creating animated, sustainable urban communities.

She was an advocate of corner stores and storefronts, front porches and stoops, balconies and "eyes on the street." She embraced the visual noise and messiness of city blocks bustling round-the-clock with people and vehicles.

Jacobs also was an early model of the engaged, outspoken activist, demonstrating how concerned citizens can affect the course of public policy.

In addition to remembering her book, obituary writers recalled her persistent battle during the late 1960s with New York City public works czar Robert Moses, who proposed building an expressway slicing across lower Manhattan. Jacobs and her allies helped stop the project, which would have cut a wide swath through SoHo, flattening historic structures and splitting neighborhoods.

Jacobs "attacked the arrogance of city planners for making decisions without consulting those affected," wrote Washington Post obituary writer Adam Bernstein. "She spoke of the displacement of thousands of residents and the destruction of small, if untidy, communities whose diversity was crucial to a city's allure. She maintained that urban renewal worsened the problems it was intended to solve: high crime, architectural conformity and a general dullness infecting daily life."

Since the 1960s, thanks in part to Jacobs, much has changed, not only in urban planning theory and principles, but also in urban development practices. Today many planners embrace specific elements cited by Jacobs as essential to fostering healthy urban communities: rational, interconnected street networks; walkable neighborhoods; increased densities and mixed uses; and architectural design guidelines relating to massing and geometry, scale and exterior materials.

Although conventional, single-use zoning persists, many jurisdictions have amended their zoning ordinances to permit greater diversity in land use, density and architecture. Some cities and counties even have adopted new road design standards allowing more intimate, pedestrian-friendly streets.

Emulating Jacobs, citizens in recent decades have shown much greater interest in planning and development within their communities. Becoming better informed and forcefully expressing their opinions publicly, or through the ballot box, they exert more influence than ever before.

Perhaps the best example of this has been the evolution of the historic preservation movement. Today, unlike in 1961, preservation of historic districts and structures is not only a matter of interest for both citizens and planners, but also a matter regulated by federal, state and local law.

Of course, Jacobs focused on traditional cities, not expanding suburbs -- for which she had little affinity and, at the time, little concern. As New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff pointed out, Jacobs "had few answers for suburban sprawl or the nation's dependence on cars." He further speculated that "she never understood cities like Los Angeles, whose beauty stems from the heroic scale of its freeways and its strange interweaving of man-made and natural environments."

The beauty of Los Angeles' freeways is debatable, but Jacobs was not really concerned with anyone else's aesthetic theorizing. Rather, she simply wanted to deliver truths about people who inhabit and love cities, about why they love the city and how the things they love were being disregarded and demolished.

Those truths are still worth repeating and remembering.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company