Ben Smithgall

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Software and data at Spotify. Previously with U.S. Digital Service and Code for America.

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The Death and Life of Great American Cities

By Jane Jacobs

Finished reading on October 31, 2018

It’s been almost 60 years since Jacobs first published this seminal work of sociology and urban planning, and much of it still rings true. I was surprised to learn that the New York City of 1961 was not that much smaller than it is today in absolute population terms.

There are a number of fascinating observations that Jacobs make that I think are quite salient and I wonder how she would recommend we proceed in the modern era. It seems as though the problem of “cataclysmic money” that marks much new development in New York has only gotten more aggressive over time. “Mixed use” also seems to have largely lost the main purpose that she was describing in this book, now it seems like a way to sneak in more small-unit family-unfriendly luxury housing.

Speaking of luxury housing, this is one of a number of urban-planning related pieces I have learned from recently. Others of note are this long and often overwrought lamentation about New York City by Kevin Baker in Harper’s magazine and the wonderful Power, Planning, & Politics series over on YouTube. This last one is especially interesting in with the ways that cars and freeways choke off and kill neighborhoods and communities.

Taking these things all together and thinking about them in the context of New York, where I live now, what Jacobs identifies as a primary way to ensure a diversity of resident incomes in a district is no longer valid. She writes a whole chapter on how neighborhoods need a mixture of old and new buildings in order to ensure that the neighborhood has a diversity of structural styles and to pull in people from different income brackets. However, now that young people are rushing back to cities, apartments and homes both old and new are unaffordable in neighborhoods close to the city. Neighborhoods further out are becoming less affordable all the time. The solutions Jacobs proposes towards the end of her book around “guaranteed rents” do not seems like they would solve this core affordability problem, which would dramatically change how cities would be able to ensure the all-important diversity of uses in their neighborhoods.

There are so many other interesting questions and ideas raised by Jacobs’ work. Can the informal community surveillance be used to create safety in other contexts? Acknowledging weakness in the way we organize ourselves to govern today, what better ways might exist to organize and govern cities? Is it possible to stop successfully diverse communities from strangling themselves with their successes? Jacobs doesn’t necessarily provide all the answers to these questions, but the book is worth reading just to see how she approaches them, and what all has changed since she originally published the book.

★★★★★