Sample Essay on The Death and Life of Great American Cities

“The Death and Life of Great American Cities”


The book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is authored by a writer and activist, Jane Jacobs. The book was published in 1961 and it has received mixed reactions from several readers.Some readers have immensely criticized the book, especially because of Jacobs’background of knowledge in architecture or planning, while others have welcomed its sentiments. According to the author, the book was written as a result of the research that Jacobs carried out and analysis of firsthand districts as well as neighborhoods. Mainly, Janet Jacobs makes reference to her home district, which is Greenwich Village, throughout the book to support her ideas. The book is categorized into four main parts.

Part One ‘The Peculiar Natures of Cities’ 

In this part, the book introduces a micro gauge of the author’s ideas “Sidewalk Safety and Contact.” The main objective of sidewalk is not only enabling persons to walk on it but also entails public space. For any district or urban setting to be successful, pedestrians need sidewalls to be safe and secure. However, this can only take place when the sidewalks have the following features: clearly marked for private use and public space, people using them must always have their eyes on the streets and lastly, they must be used frequently.

The author talks about the significance of native public figures in the localities putting it clear that they are significant in attracting eyes on the sidewalks and they create a social network, diffuse community news,and link the local community inhabitants. Alternatively, in case there is a change in the population of a community, the face of the sidewalks will definitely change, an aspect that threatens the security of the locale, especially the concern about children’s security. This book focuses on several concerns regarding garden city planning. One of the aspects talked about is the creation of child rearing space in the middle of super blocks that provide an environment where minors can easily be controlled.

Nevertheless, the construction of the design disregards the outer sidewalks because all eyes are primarily fixed on the center parts that give a false sense of security. According to the author, the parks are volatile spaces and sidewalks require eyes and nonstop usage. However, with the inclusion of open spaces, this fundamental aspect becomes hard to be maintained(Jacobs 14). In a situation where a neighborhood, region or locality fails to interest people, chances are that it is a specified parkthat entails distinct magnetisms in drawing individuals into the space.

Part Two: The Generators of City Diversity

In this section, the author talks about the four circumstances that need to be fulfilled to make an enthusiastic diversity. These include the necessity for primary uses, short blocks, aged buildings, and finally adequate individual’s concentration. According to the author, primary uses entail work, education, public buildings, and museums that are deliberated to be anchors in the district,thereby attracting people and enabling the creation of secondary diversity. Secondary diversity involves creativity that blossom for the existence of primary diversity. Janet Jacob insists that each district ought to have at least one primary use that will maintain a continuous span of activities within the district at all times. Furthermore, the author goes ahead to explain that the requirement of old buildings is significant because they maintain a low rent yield and enhance the growth and expansion of small enterprises within the district. Jacobs also maintains that it is important for districts to have a combination of low, medium, and high yield buildings for them to be diverse. Jacobs maintains that in as much as the construction is important, they only become effective to profitable business entities that are in a position to afford the high rents paid.

According to Jacobs, small blocks are significant as they allow a higher cultural diversity within a region or district, and they make it possible to explore streets that would not have been explored before. Because of these increased routes by individuals, there are high chances of increased commerce as a result of increased routes among people. The necessity of a comparatively dense population in the district environment, approximately 100 to 200 people in an acre, results in increased users of sidewalks as well as eyes on the streets. On the hand, an overpopulated district environment leads to increased cost of housing, inadequate side lanes for safe sidewalks, and makes constructions and buildings to be standardized. In contrast, low densely populated regions in the districts are exposed to the dangers of being grey areas, thus, resulting in slums.

Part Three: Forces of Decline and Regeneration

In this section, Janet Jacobs focuses on the notions of the inclination for great diversity to turn out to be a self-obliteration. This entails the fact that certain localities or districts are predominantly associated with a given use that inhibits diversification because of the one factor use supremacy. Jacobs further explains that the problem is magnified if it affects more than one locality. Other factors that destroy cities, according to the author, include border vacuums and the physical and functional effects they impact on cities through creation of confines, dead ends, as well as organization of the urban settings into smaller units. For instance, in the West side of Central Park in New York, the author explains that the easiest borders to be adjusted are the ones that will enhance greater application of their perimeters.

The author also talks about the Urban Renewal slum upgrading program that was initiated in the late 1940s and 1950’s, which was shattering. According to the author, the program entailed demolishing several neighborhoods aimed at eradicating slums (Gurtznp). Jacobs criticizes the program by stating that slums are never eradicated by replacing them through putting up high yield projects. However, slums should be reallocated among several districts, a proposal that she puts forth in enhancing slum dwellers to stop leavingsuch places in a moderate speed rate that is not too fast. In any case, Jacobs maintains that if the logic behind the community is resilient enough, the residents will most likely develop their homes over time in the districts.

The fundamental affirmation of the book by Janet Jacobs is the notion that urban settings are primarily dissimilar from conurbations. In addition, the author maintains that large cities, which are the subject matter of this book, are different from other lesser cities. Moreover, many of the popular formations among people with regards to ultimate urban planning, for instance the income use of housing projects, are misplaced and damaging in the large cities. Most of the perceptions only apply in suburbs and other lesser urban settings where cars are ever-present, characterized with low population and where people are on transit every time they need something.

According to the author, as the density of the of districts increases, constructions or structures, for instance, planning, government, developments, as well as attitudes in the low density regions begin to decline. Among the United States population, negative attitudes with regards to urban settings is focused on the break down as well as the catastrophe of higher density districts, which are still controlled like lesser cities. However, according to Jacobs, she demonstrates the fact that higher rates of density level as compared to slums or grey zones, which she warns against, can be eradicated in the event of having the correct combination of essential factors and plans where an accurate city can be formed and prosper. Creation of such an urban setting comes along with a different nature of social organization that is far above a suburb and one that is governed by different guidelines and flourishes on different standards.

The most treasured section of the book in my own perspective is section two where the author talked about the facets that Janet Jacobs believe are significant in the strong growth and development of an urban setting. These entail mixed uses, small blocks, concentration as well as building ages. This concept provides the basis upon which the rest of the book is written. The book naturally explains the snags associated with customary urban design and several remedies that follow logically. The remaining parts of the book dwells on making an elaboration of section two, conversing the ideologies, as well as applying them in preparingand analyzing the reasons they are not applied.

There are several factors that make the book powerful. For instance, the manner in which the author analyzes the problems and brings forth explanations around the factors makes them look apparent in their review. For instance, one of the consideration ofeffective elements for a successful urban setting is combination of building ages. It the natural, it is a common idea for individuals to like and prefer new buildings. New buildings incorporate the best technology and they are comfortable and convenient for modern needs, thus, pleasing. Nonetheless, the process of urban restitution through leveling of the city with new constructions of modern building and doing away with the old fashioned ones leads to the death of a city, an aspect that most people do not ever think about. This is because, the new constructions and buildings have to pay off their construction cost that is translated in the rents that are payable by inhabitants.

On the other hand, new businesses require to remit low rent rates because they are new and entail low capital costs, and initial income that render them unable to cater for the new rental demands of the new buildings. This pattern of urban setting restoration, therefore, leaves the section of the urban setting with small place and chance for business enterprises to grow and develop. The overall result is hindering the heartbeat of growth and development, therebyblocking the local economy of a given region. In another instance, during the period in which the book was written, housing plans were in elegance that aimed to reflect the income perspective of individuals. As such, the housing projects initiated were aimed to target average and low income earners’ population. This made the project to have an income cover whereby because it targeted low income people, those whose levels increased or became more successful vacated the houses.

The author’s modest and logical point in the book is that successful regions or localities are the ones that win the allegiance of populaces or inhabitants that make the populace to be willing to extend their stay in the region and develop them rather than moving out of the neighborhood at the slightest opportunity to some better places. The author also presents the notion that the system does not favor the aspect of forcing inhabitants who succeed in life out of the districts. The idea of income sorting according to the book also makes the regions or neighborhoods to become narrow-minded, which tends to create in the minds of people the perceptions of us verses the notion in urban settings that declines the aspect of cultural diversity in the cities. Accordingly, the population is also affected by reducing traffic in urban settings on the streets. Consequently, retail trade is affected and it cannot thrive. This results in hazardous streets due to the presence of same average people only.

These are the instances that the book has presented among many others. The book contains full analysis of several principles that are true and well explained with regards to the concepts of urban settings. The book also entails several great stories about the history of successes and failures of big cities. This also shows the resourcefulness of big cities and the manners in which they can utilize the concepts of growth in the future growth, development, and thriving.

Besides having keenly analyzed the state of affairs in cities, the author of the book is also fanatical, productive, and she is a campaigner. The author does not dwell so much on praising urban settings with regards to inhabitant’s arrangements but rather desists from remarking on non-city constructions apart from the instances where they fail. Furthermore, in every page of the book, one can easily note the author’s love and wish for every city to shine and towards the end, her wishful thinking is to be part of the inhabitants of the cities.

Jane Jacobs also supports the government in its endeavor to provide guaranteed programs instead of owning programs in urban settings. According to the author, the programs are vital in guaranteeing the private developers the required financing in the construction process. This will also be significant in guaranteeing the developers of the rent that will accrue from the dwelling that is crucial in their economic progression. However, for these benefits to be realized, the builders will be required to construct their buildings at a designated neighborhood or spot. Furthermore, they will also be needed to select their tenants for a particular area or from particular buildings.

After the selection of tenant process has been completed, the program then identifies the proposed tents’ income levels and remits the portion of the rent the tenant would not be in position to pay. Under this arrangement, the deal will be less demeaning to the poor and therefore it will boost the economic diversity ability and that of the inhabitants of the locality. As the rate of the tenants, income increases over time, they are encouraged to remit higher levels of the rent rates, and upon reaching the level where they can pay their own rent, they are send out of the conventional projects to the areas they can afford. According to Jacobs, this arrangement is significant in reducing prominent domain grabbing and enhances a steady city transformation that is healthy.

The author also talks about cars in cities, which are well-thought-out to be a blight in the cities. Cars can lead to horrible stretches, for instance,in the case of Los Angeles. In the process of reducing public transportation in urban settings, the need for cars increases. According to Janet Jacob, this condition makes the roads to be widened as well as the construction of parking areas that leads to further stretches along the roads. The situation of traffic is chronic to the extent of engineers thinking of a proposal to get rid of the stalled cars along the highways using choppers. The author expresses her disgust against traffic null, parking lots, gas stations, and other automobiles. This is because of the erosion that they exhibit to many sidewalks. The author also recognizes the need of cars, but she believes that they should not be too many and those working need to be maximally utilized.

Finally, the author finalizes the book on a standpoint that urban settings or cities are built from structured convolutions. These convolutions are not simple but they are entangled to one another. The author states that horizontal structures are the best preferred in the planning of cities as compared to horizontal structures in the convolutions. The book “The Death and Life of American Great Cities,” is certainly among the best exciting books regarding urban setting planning in the 20th century. The impression of the book has been reflective in the architectural as well as city planning in the United States and New York. For instance, in 2009, a block along Hudson Street in the Greenwich Village was named after Jane Jacobs in the recognition of her contribution in the development of cities through a different way of thinking.


A number of drawbacks are drawn from this book and other opposition from people like Klemek (50). For instance, the book was written almost more than fifty years ago. With the transformations that have occurred in the modern world, it is hard to tell if these arguments can still apply in the world today. However, some of the author’s suggestions and approaches are still practical today as indicated in the next part of this paper. Furthermore, the book seems to focus on the United States alone. This makes it difficult for a person to comprehend what becomes of other nations with big cities like Canada where there are similar urban setting problems. This book seems to apply in one area of the world that incorporates total engagement and triggering emotions in caring for cities.

Moreover, the book looks biased and subjective. Reading through the book also makes one to marvel about the real proposals that are practical if not for the rhetoric persuasion. The author also employs controversial allegations that have no clear evidence that make the position of the book to weaken. The author provides narrow or insufficient data for past experiments and in instances where she is compelled to, Jane Jacobs only gives the data that support her assertions instead of other municipal accomplishments that do not support her position.

Jane Jacob’s criticisms of urban planning and US cities in the 1961 were valid and are very relevant in today’s argument. In the book, the author brings out the idea that the main objective of economic diversity in terms of richness and business ideas is to flourish the given city. This implies that the greatest factors that make up cities are enhanced by diversity. This natural diversity leads to self-generating as well as regenerating of among cities. Therefore, cities are naturally commercial generators of diversity even in the current setup. The author reinforces this by asserting that the forces that make a city a better place in enterprising are the same forces that make the cities the best place for one to live in.

In her position about the four main urban design principles, the author talks about mixed uses. In this regard, the author maintains that an effective district requires more than one primary function. According to Jacob, a mixture of primary functions that provide housing, shops, and offices among other services are significant and appealing to a broader range of people, which also extends their activities for longer periods of time. This makes the streets and sidewalks to be busy with mixed use activities within the urban centers that enhance security. This fact also brings about different uses of urban functions that break the monotony of one activity in the locale.  This applies to the cities today that have enhanced different mixed uses to attract different investors and visitors with a variety of services and products that have positive results in the growth and development of the cities (Jacobs 61).

Moreover, the multiple application of mixed use areas is crucial in providing a productive ground for new business enterprises and entities. The author condemns the aspect of categorization of uses to given districts, for instance, government and cultural centers. This is because such arrangements obstruct the cross production of thoughts and ideas as well as proficiencies that are essential for healthy growth and development of a city. This collection of ideas and interests is significant in the growth and development of cities today, whereby cross cultural interactions through different city uses are put in a given urban setting. As people mix and create social setting, different ideas and thoughts are shared, thus, opening new ideas and projects that benefit the inhabitants and promotes the growth of the city.

On the matter on streets and sidewalks, the author’s contribution with regards to the urban setting is related to her comprehension of the fact that streets and sidewalks are the essential public spaces formany urban settings. Despite the arguments on the issues of wastefulness of streets and the need for separating the public from private cars in urban settings, the author watched carefully how the two features are significantly applied in the vivacious urban settings. She, therefore, noted that effective urban uses must also be sustained by other lesser blocks, regular streets, sitting parks as well as public buildings in strategic places. The author’s recommendation that streets need to be restructured to favor pedestrians over vehicles is an antecedent of the present traffic calming technology. Furthermore, the issue of banning cars, which she also proposed in New York’s Washington Square, did not hold up as to her expectations.However,this idea was also witnessed in the demolition of Embarcadero Freeway along the San Siro waterfront.


This paper has illustrated Jane Jacob’s book ‘’The Death of Life of Great American Cities’’, which articulates different sets of thoughts brought about by the author. Jane Jacobs established a model swing in planning urban cities with respect to the existing city diversity that has been translated to how city inhabitants perceive the cities currently. Presently, the thought and philosophies of Jane Jacobs are still vital for several urban planning movements in the development of cities.

Works Cited

Jacobs, Jane. “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Readings in Planning Theory, Fourth Edition (2015): 94-109.Print.

Gratz, Roberta Brandes. “Authentic urbanism and the Jane Jacobs legacy.”Urban villages and the making of communities. London: Spon (2003): 17-29.

Klemek, Christopher. “Placing Jane Jacobs within the transatlantic urban conversation.” Journal of the American Planning Association 73.1 (2007): 49-67.