Jane Jacobs 101

A quick guide to this feisty urbanist's influential view on how cities should work.

In the first sentence of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs's 1961 manifesto on how to save urban centers in decline, the author says, "This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding." The tone only grows more combative from there.

Given how often Jacobs is cast merely as a foil to Robert Moses—the dogged organizer who battled to preserve her beloved West Village—it's tempting to view her as somewhat quaint or reactionary. Her writing is emphatically neither of these things. Within 25 pages of Death and Life, she has blithely dismissed 100-plus years of planning theory. Far from advocating neighborhoods as cute, tightly knit townships, she argues vehemently for privacy and the comfortable anonymity that cities afford. While she doesn't exactly love large-scale development projects, Jacobs clamors for cities to pack themselves with more buildings, more streets, more people…even more factories.

"A lot of people assume that Jacobs is a romantic who positioned herself against hardheaded, practical people," says Kent Barwick, president of the Municipal Art Society of New York (MAS), "but she is pretty tough-minded." (The MAS recently created an exhibition on Jacobs's ideas, viewable starting September 25.) This is the side of Jacobs that's often overlooked. She didn't just argue against things; she invited cities to grow aggressively and embrace their unique assets.

Specifically, she outlined four qualities that any city neighborhood must have in order to be healthy and desirable to residents. We give you the cocktail-party version:

1. Mixed primary uses
2. Short blocks
3. Aged buildings
4. High density of residents

Quality 1. Mixed primary uses

GOOD BAD
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Astoria's Steinway Street bustles with a mix of small shops and apartments.
Photo: Wenyi Huang
Dull, homogenous blocks—in this case 3rd Street between Mercer and LaGuardia Place—drew Jacobs's constant ire.
Photo: Deniz Ozuyugur

Jacobs judged neighborhoods mostly in functional, as opposed to aesthetic, terms (though for her the two went hand in hand). Did they work? Did they function as effective city units? To answer these questions, she initially assessed nearly every area according to the uses that draw people to it. Primary uses are defined as those that induce people to spend time in the area—essentially businesses, residences, and a few special institutions like museums or libraries. (Secondary uses are those that sprout up to serve people who are already in the neighborhood for other reasons.)

Writing in a time when zoning policy was designed to group like institutions together (residential with residential, commercial with commercial), Jacobs asserted that uses must be intermingled in order to pool groups of people there at different times of day. A business district with significant street traffic only during morning and evening rushes, she pointed out, will support far fewer stores and eateries than a bustling area with pedestrians passing through at all hours. She said work and housing should be mixed, going so far as to praise a glue factory that operated near her place in the West Village. For Jacobs, fostering this diversity of users and commercial enterprises is the Holy Grail for any district, and it all starts with a varied matrix of primary uses.

Quality 2. Short blocks

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Numerous little side streets and short cuts are a staple of the West Village Jacobs loved.
Photo: Lisa Vosper
Jacobs said long blocks tend to attract only large, standardized stores. For an example, try all of W 34th Street.
Photo: Wenyi Huang

Block size might seem, on first blush, a rather inane topic to anoint as a crucial determinant of urban health. However, in her thorough, straight-ahead way, Jacobs made a strong case for its importance. The argument can be boiled down thusly: People don't like walking down long blocks and will avoid them if at all possible. Anyone who has ever been forced to trek the extended stretches between avenues in Midtown West knows this to be true. (Fun fact: TONY employees have to walk these avenues every day.)

The practical effect of this long-block avoidance is that people walk only along the blocks on which they live or work. Neighborhoods with long blocks will therefore have one or two well-trafficked commercial fares (usually the streets leading to a subway) and a bunch of streets people use only because their destination lies there. Short blocks offer people more navigation options from point A to point B. This distributes the pedestrian traffic more evenly and creates more viable locations for the multifarious neighborhood shops that Jacobs craved.

Quality 3. Aged buildings

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The high rents implied by new construction are easier to take when there are older, cheaper buildings next door, as on this stretch of University Place.
Photo: Deniz Ozuyugur
This new Bowery development spans the whole block, ensuring that all the living space will be pricey. Is it any wonder a yuppie totem like Whole Foods opened there?
Photo: Deniz Ozuyugur

It's not surprising that Jacobs favored old buildings. Plenty of people like certain historical touches or "classic" architecture. What is surprising is that she reserved her highest praise for old buildings that are crappy. Again, building age was not an aesthetic issue for Jacobs. She liked dated structures because they are cheap, and their lower rents are likely to have an income-diversifying effect. In other words, old buildings prevent a neighborhood from becoming a playground for the rich (an outcome that was, for Jacobs, almost as stultifying and objectionable as the emergence of a slum).

It should be noted that Jacobs wanted, as with most things, a mix of old and new buildings. She did not want a neighborhood to be forever shielded from new construction. She viewed this as stagnation. But she didn't dwell too much on the new, on the (probably safe) assumption that there is always development pressure to build new things in cities. The old places, especially if they are ugly or run-down, have fewer advocates.

Quality 4. High density of residents

GOOD BAD
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Chaotic and dirty? Maybe. But Chinatown's high density of residents contributes to its constant life and activity.
Photo: Deniz Ozuyugur
This Stuy Town courtyard would look pleasant to most, but Jacobs said high rises that nestle within open spaces use land poorly and breed crime.
Photo: Deniz Ozuyugur

The last of Jacobs's principles is also the one that probably retains the greatest amount of its shock value today. She thought successful neighborhoods should be packed with people. If a district didn't have enough buildings to house these masses, Jacobs said it should build more, or build higher. She said ground coverage should increase. She was very cynical about the value of open spaces.

Even today, these ideas seem a little weird. After all, if you ask people what they don't like about their current 'hood, "It's too crowded" is likely to be a common reply. Why would Jacobs want to promote such high concentrations? Her answer—in oversimplified form—is that large numbers of people are what make cities cities. Without these hordes, urban areas could not have the variety of attractions they do or serve as many diverse niches. To achieve this diversity within a neighborhood, it must also hold large numbers of people. This includes visitors, whom Jacobs welcomed as an essential element in the neighborhood mix. The more the merrier in Jane's world.