Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs holding up planning documents
Mrs. Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to save the West Village holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles Sts. in 1961.

I’ve just this morning started reading, after putting it off for over forty years, The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs (1961). Many of you may know that this is probably the most revered book on urban planning ever written, and is considered in fact one of the best books of any kind of the last hundred years. I just finished a wonderful biography of Jacobs and have been itching to finally get to “Death and Life” as its fans call it. I’m not disappointed. She wrote brilliantly and frankly. The opening sentence is, “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Here are a couple of juicy quotes from the introduction, which I share with you because they are equally relevant to landscaping, as I think you will see.

“It may be that we have become so feckless as a people that we no longer care how things work, but only what kind of quick, easy outer impression they give.”

“[The] ubiquitous principle is the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other constant mutual support, both economically and socially. The components of this diversity can differ enormously, but they must supplement each other in certain concrete ways.”

Substitute “landscapes” for “cities,” “living components” for “uses,” and “environmentally” for “economically,” leaving, perhaps, “socially” intact, and you will see that she is talking about sustainability, ecosystem design, and regeneration, terms that were not in use when she wrote.

Finally,

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretend order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”

Subject most any conventional landscape to that test, whether a modest residential garden or a grand public space, and I think it becomes clear that we have a lot of work to do on the betterment of our profession and its products.