August 31, 2021

My Most Valued and Valuable Book

It’s been sixty years since this book was printed:


Yes, a first-edition (paperback) of the 1961 book that transformed our perception of cities and the planning profession itself.  It still takes pride of place on my bookshelf, in part because I still reference it, especially for walking tours of the West End.  But its value also comes from the inscription by the author herself when she was in the mayor’s office in 2002, my last year in office, to meet with Philip Owen.

Combining my study of the book and my experience on Council, I realized that much of what Jacobs’s revealed was not exactly what people thought she was saying.  Indeed, her book would become a primary tool of NIMBYism, referenced at public hearings by those objecting to the new and the dense.  (If they had actually calculated what Jacobs thought was a reasonable density, they would have been shocked.*)

Time has also changed the relevance of Jacobs’s examples, and some of the lessons drawn from them, and some she missed.  Globe columnist Doug Saunders discusses exactly that in a celebratory article on her landmark work.

No other book has so transformed our understanding of cities, not just in North America but worldwide – and now, 60 years after its publication and 15 years after Ms. Jacobs’s death in Toronto, it’s fair to say that no work has transformed cities themselves so much.

And that’s become a problem. While The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a book everyone ought to read, for its conversationally persuasive style as much as for its ideas, it is far less valuable today as a guide to action for mayors and planners – in large part because it has become a victim of its own overwhelming success. …

The biggest neighbourhood-level challenges facing mayors today involve challenges — and parts of town — that weren’t envisioned in her book. Cozy central-city neighbourhoods are no longer jeopardized by mega-freeways and huge inhuman housing projects; if anything, they suffer too much intimacy, too little population and too little change. And the suburbanization of immigration and poverty mean the districts that most need to shift and evolve are the ones least able to do it on their own, without large-scale rescues. The book’s ideas remain compelling, but today’s mayors need a few new chapters. …

The neighbourhoods that are hungry for transformation today are more often located far into the inner-suburban perimeter, surrounded by those grassy boundaries, where no community organizing or bicycle lane or “15-minute” plan or gradual, organic change will remove those visitor-blocking barriers and make the sidewalks dance.

Today’s urban challenges need another approach.

I have no doubt that one of the best thinkers and writers to address the challenge that Saunders lays out would have been Jane Jacobs herself.  She had little patience for tired or utopian ideas out of touch with observed reality – and that would have included her own.


*What did Jacobs recommend by way of density?

“As a general rule, I think 100 dwellings per acre will be found to be too low.”

It helps to know that our West End and Olympic Village come in at 103 dwellings per acre (dua). (More details and illustrations here.)  Senakw, on the other hand, currently calls for a dua of over 500 – way above what Jacobs would consider a danger mark of standardization.

But let’s not commit the sin which she so effectively preaches against: reducing everything to overly simplistic numbers.  That’s the reason to read, and-reread, the book.


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