The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs

i have spent the last week getting myself to the halfway point on this. it’s always a little bizarre to read non-fiction books and realize that while reading fiction, my brain must not be engaged as intensely or something, because suddenly i’ve “read” several pages and don’t remember a thing.

this is a classic book on urban planning, published in the early 1960s. while i occasionally wish that this text was updated for today, it’s amazing how relevant it still is, without ever having been changed from its original edition. it serves as an historical record, as Jacobs uses so many examples from big cities (i. e., “Great American” — as those are the cities she has extensive knowledge on), but from the 1950s when she was writing the book. at that time, she lived in greenwich village and even just the evolution that has gone on there in the last forty years is astounding.

there are just a lot of little things about this book so far that i appreciate, like the note after the table contents on illustrations:

The scenes that illustrate this book are all about us. For illustrations, please look closely at real cities. While you are looking, you might as well also listen, linger and think about what you see.

the book isn’t overly academic and, in fact, feels like common sense rather than theory after a while. part of why an update of the text doesn’t seem mandatory is that it imparts the necessary structure to think about contemporary cities and new developments and how they fit in — it’s fundamental.

the first half of the book looks at the nature of cities (uses of sidewalks, parks, neighborhoods) and the conditions necessary for proper city diversity. now i’m going to rest a little before tackling the second half about decline and possible solutions.

(I got around to reading the rest of the book by early 2005.)