Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Death and Life of the Great American City by Jane Jacobs

Many pertinent concepts are covered in The Death and Life of the Great American City by Jane Jacobs. Although published in 1961, Death and Life is still an incredibly relevant manuscript detailing critical elements for successful urban form. Her book is divided into four parts, or studies, each analyzing a different aspect of cities. In the first two parts Death and Life, Jacobs instills the importance of sidewalk safety, children and the pedestrian environment, park design, diversity, and small block size.

The first major concept addresses sidewalk safety, calling for wide sidewalks surrounded by diverse land uses. Surrounding uses must be a mix of residential, small businesses and few larger facilities in order to populate the streets. The street should support an atmosphere for play, business and life. The design is critical, streets are important meeting places and should be treated as public space. Street design should invite people out of their homes and businesses adding to vibrancy but also to dispel fears from crime due to isolation. The design and mixture of uses should give people reasons to use and traverse the street.

Low buildings enhance street environments. People in the buildings tend to feel closer to the street, peer out more often and tend to generate a stronger sense of community. Proper density is also desired in order to effectively populate sidewalks and allow businesses to flourish. Continuity and permeability throughout the neighborhood brings others to the area and links the community to other nearby uses. Jacobs states that people are not necessarily attracted to quiet deserted places and naturally long for the companionship of community. She details the activity in her neighborhood, comparing it to an intricate natural ballet, both night and day.

She examines how children interact with the sidewalk. Wide sidewalks allow for urban play. Accompanied by diverse land uses, the places are safe and contained. She notes how planned playgrounds and park spaces are actually more dangerous for children because there are less eyes on the street. Children wander and get into trouble. She also notes how children from the projects play differently- they often have no boundaries and adults do not scold then because they do not know these kids. Similarly, the children from the projects do not want to leave the day care – they are so unfulfilled at home – lacking necessary play spaces.

The next chapter discusses park design. The surrounding uses are critical. There should be a variety of users throughout the day. The park cannot be surrounded by residential uses only, because then “only mothers” use the park. She explains how segregated land uses make men absent in many parts of the city – which likely still holds true as men commute farther and women still tend to stay local for child rearing. That aside, park activity should be intricate and yet simple. She provides an excellent example of Rittenhouse Square in Philadelphia, which is still an amazing park.

Jacobs reinforces the importance of diversity – and not in the typical sense. Diversity of people and diversity within the urban fabric are essential to the urban fabric. But in this sense, Jacobs discusses the importance of diversity in the timing of uses. The timing of uses helps maintain vitality. Her key example takes place on Wall St. in Manhattan. During the day in the late 1950s to early 1960s, roughly 400,000 report to work in this business district, but by night fall – no one remains. Small businesses that once supported the district could not stay open as they were only busy during the lunch hour.

Allowing for a variety of building ages also enhances the community for many reasons. Older buildings provide historical context and enriching architectural style. Mixing aged buildings provides different spaces for a variety of lifestyles or business needs. Aged buildings may also have lower rents, which would cater to certain businesses as well.

Small block size is another influential factor. Jacobs provides an example in Manhattan’s Upper West Side where avenues create long blocks among the horizontal streets. Residents may live on these streets for years and may never venture over to the neighboring block. Small block size allows for permeability and increased the variety of ways to travel within a neighborhood. Say the long street was divided in two, now the resident could simply walk over one block and up one, versus having to travel to the end of two blocks, up one and back to another use – which is not a terrible detour but less efficient. Smaller blocks also shape the urban form by creating smaller building footprints, variety of architectural features and more intriguing pedestrian environment.