A summary of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs)

  • Attack on principles and aims that have shaped current city planning and rebuilding – not based on details about rebuilding methods or styles of design.
  • We are building without sensitivity to the needs of citizens.
  • Economic rationale of current city building does not reflect reasoned investment or tax subsidies.
  • Planners are guided by the fanciful notions and appearances of what a city should be and remain blind to what a city actually is.
  • Simple needs of cars are easier to satisfy and understand than the complex needs of cities – designers seem to think that if they solve the problem of traffic that they will also solve the major problem of cities.
  • The author charges the current state of city planning as pseudoscience and says it has not developed to the point of yet being useful.
  • Understanding the behaviour of cities means examining the most ordinary scenes and events and identifying common principles.
  • There is a need for cities to have an intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that support each other economically and socially.
  • Four primary conditions to understand in order to create diversity in cities:
    • Social behaviour of people in cities
    • Economic behaviour of cities
    • Aspects of decay and regeneration
    • Changes in housing, traffic, design, planning and administrative practices


  • How do cities handle organized complexity?
  • Ignoring/suppressing real order that is struggling to exist creates a mask of pretended order
  • Ebenezer Howard – proposed the creation of the “garden city,” essentially the creation of self-sufficient small towns, each encircled with a belt of agriculture
  • Town and green belt would be controlled by the public authority to prevent an increase in density that would form a city – maximum population of 30,000
  • Nathan Glazer summed up the vision well in Architectural Forum: “The image was the English country town — with the manor house and its park replaced by a community center, and with some factories hidden behind a screen of trees, to supply work.”
  • Some countries emulated this idea, mostly unsuccessfully.
  • Jacobs asserts that city planners with no desire to build the garden city are still governed by its principles.
  • Howard conceived of good planning as a series of static acts, where the plan should anticipate all that is needed; paternalistic and authoritarian.
  • Howard’s theories spawned the “decentrist” movement which had better success with influencing city planning than putting their theories into practice – their ideas that the street is bad for humans, that houses should be turned away from the streets and faced inward are now taken for granted. Commerce should be separated from residential and green areas. The planned community should be isolated as a self-contained unit.


  • Le Corbusier designed the “Radiant City” mainly of skyscrapers in a park with a high density. Skyscrapers would occupy only 5% of the ground, leaving the lower levels as luxury housing around courts.
  • Corbusier accepted the garden city’s fundamental image and worked to make it practical for high densities.
  • The Radiant City relied on the notions the garden city imposed of the super-block, the unchangeable plan, and lots of green space.

    Through these theories, cities have served as the sacrificial victims to irrelevant planning.

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