Mary Rowe on the Introduction: Why you will read and reread this book

Are there any nonfiction books on your shelf over fifty years old? I have only a few reference books:  Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. These have been updated, periodically overhauled. I also have a few fiction classics, and two classic texts left over from university: Plato’s Republic, Machiavelli’s The Prince. And the Bible.

But I also have the book that we are beginning to read today: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, penned by Jane Jacobs in the late 1950s and published by Random House in 1961. Jacobs lived to the age of 89. In her lifetime it was reprinted many times, and translated into several languages, but to the best of my knowledge, she never altered a single word in it. She did offer a new Introduction for a 1992 edition, in which she described the evolution of her work as having become about observing a city’s “ecology”—from which one of the sponsoring organizations of this Book Club has taken its name (Centre for City Ecology). She stood pat on the original text of Death and Life.

Like many, I first read Death and Life as part of a university course in the early 1980s. It was assigned, interestingly, as a text for a course that was looking at cities in what was then called “the Third World” (thank goodness we’ve dropped that hubristic label; at least the vocabulary has changed). Taught by esteemed University of Toronto professor Richard Stren, the course focused on the dynamism of “informal” settlements in Africa, Asia, and South America. Although Jacobs’ observations had been taken principally from American cities, Stren cited her as the early observer of the dynamic elements of vibrant urban life, and of the perils of over-planning and trying to “control” or “clean up” a city. Stren’s life work has continued to be about valuing the informal in cities in the Global South, and he, like so many others, sees Jacobs as a sage.

I remember not attending very much of that course, surviving, though, largely due to Professor Stren’s forbearance. I was near graduation, ready to be out and about, to find my way in the big city. I made money then as a basketball referee. My eagerness (and income needs!) made me available for every assignment, no matter when or where. I got to know the transit system very well. (At that time, more organized recreational basketball was played in Toronto than in any other North American city—an early indicator of the evolving impact that large numbers of immigrants, and ball-playing cultures, were having on it). Those years had an indelible impact not only on my knees, but also on my understanding of the workings of the city, its neighborhoods, how it supported (or suppressed) people’s aspirations and their commitment to community, and the make-up of their lives.

'basketball' by Flickr user tcp909

For the first time I saw teenage moms—in the stands of their high school gymnasiums, with their infants. From those bus windows I saw empty playgrounds, strip malls, blocks and blocks of old low-rise apartment buildings and wartime bungalows, new towers (condominiums: what were they?). I watched daytime business execs blow off steam in high school gyms and community centres, as they became evening bloodhounds, playing in the “industrial” leagues their pals organized. (The Filipino leagues, which played all day on the weekends, brought their own delicious food, spurning vending machine fare for Tupperware.) I’d leave late-night games and trundle home on the subway, accompanied by other late work-leavers, or shift workers, teen carousers, or adults heading home after a movie or play.

I was in my early twenties. This was the city—and I was seeing it.

That is the exhortation Jacobs speaks in Death and Life. She purposefully included no photos, no sketches  (actually there are a few hand drawn, showing the benefit of short blocks), no graphs. (Had PowerPoint existed, I suspect Jane would have never used it.) Right at the outset she tells us why: because what illustrates her points is all around us, and that we should “listen, linger, and think about what you see.”1  But more importantly—and I think this is central to the Jacobs ethos—she required her readers to do their own work. She was not a prescriber. This is hard for many of us, because we all look for a source of steady, certain answers.

Stop reading Death and Life if that’s what you’re after. I read sections of Death and Life frequently, because they remind me to pay attention to detail; to probe what is really going on in a practical way rather than accept some pat explanation; because her prose is just so beautifully constructed you can’t help yourself to not read just another page (that just happened to me, again); and because her analysis is not predictable. After you read her, you’re left with your own thoughts and musings, from your own observations and experience. Just wait until the chapters when she discusses streets and parks. Her observations are so opposite to common thinking—still.

Perhaps that speaks to an important lens with which we can together read this explicative volume. Why are so many of the challenges Jacobs identifies, and the foibles she exposes, still so prevalent in the ways cities are building and developing (old and new)? Who, or “what” is not getting this? What stubborn structures continue to obstruct the organic, the particular, the diverse, the vibrant, the sustainable, the self-organizing, the resilient, the livable city? Or, where do we see these aspects of city life flourishing—and why there, and why now?

This week we are to be reading the Introduction. On the page facing it, Jacobs chose to quote Oliver Wendell Holmes, whose ideas she greatly admired. I am struck by the hopefulness of the quote she chose:

“…more complex and intense intellectual efforts mean a fuller and richer life. They mean more life. Life is an end in itself, and the only question as to whether it is worth living is whether you have enough of it.” (Jacobs quoting Oliver Wendell Holmes, Front matter, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Random House, New York, 1961.)

The Introduction begins with a sentence for which she is now—in professional planning circles—infamous. “This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” The chapter—which is really a tour de force, summarizing the ideas that she will lay out in detail and the notions that will become, over time, generally accepted as the contemporary understanding of how great, large, complex cities thrive, or decline. But that first sentence has led what may have already been a narcissistically-preoccupied profession—urban planning—into thinking this book, and therefore city-building, is about them. (Attention readers who happen to be planners: You probably think this book is about you, don’t you…don’t you…?). It really isn’t. What we’ve seen in my lifetime (I am just slightly older than the book) is the democratization of city-building, with Jacobs’ neutralizing the traditional deference paid to ‘experts’, in favour of the real experience of people. Her practical, common sense analysis and shunning of grand approaches and universal theories was by her own powers—as Holmes advocated—by which she made sense of the city. She challenges her readers to do so also. Where has this left the profession of planning? If lay people—who live, work, and use the city in every way—know best what they need and want from it, what “expertise” does a planner bring? This is a worthy question, to which lots of planners have creatively responded (including several you will read here, in subsequent posts). But Death and Life is not about planning or planners. It’s about life.

As mentioned earlier, Jacobs wrote a new essay for the front matter of the 1992 edition, to include with the original Introduction. If your edition doesn’t include it, you might want to borrow a friend’s 1992 book or read an excerpt online, as it provides a further challenge from the author to better understand how cities work, and the still generally unheeded implications for their planning and governance.

Reading Death and Life first in the Jacobs canon is important because the concepts here underpin her work that follows. In reflection you can see the seeds of subsequent volumes—how city economies grow, the challenges of governance and dependencies on “senior” governments, the importance of seeing connections—the “web” of organized complexity, her distrust of large “schemes” or one-size-fits-all universals (from the “right” or the “left”). And she lays out her method, to which you will see she returns again and again, as her “tactics for understanding”:

  • think about processes, not outcomes;
  • work inductively, not developing theories and applying them; and
  • look for the “un-average”—clues that explain things in smaller instances and quantities that may be instructive at larger scales. (For more information on this, see the final chapter of Death and Life, “The Kind of Problem a City Is”.)

Death and Life is an eloquent and rigorous primer of the Jacobs way. And if you’re like me, you’ll return to Death and Life again and again, as a reminder to pay attention to what you are seeing.

My own life experience continues to confirm what Jacobs first described fifty years ago: the city is the never-ending story. The City Builder Book Club is an exciting new vehicle for reading and telling one another the stories of the city. I am looking forward very much to readings yours. Thanks Jane. (And you too, Dr. Stren.)

1. The Center for the Living City, initiated by Jacobs’ friend and colleague, urban chronicler Roberta Gratz, and directed by artist/planning professor Stephen Goldsmith, was created to advance the legacy of Jane Jacobs. To that end, in 2010 the Center published, with New Village Press, a terrific book embracing Jacobs’ exhortation, entitled What We See. This volume, available here, is a great companion piece to Death and Life. Once you’ve read the latter, dip into What We See.

18 Comments Add yours

  1. Steven Dale says:

    Great post, Mary. A question:

    How do we know what “lay people . . . . need and want” from a city? We can ask them, but that only goes so far.

    We constantly see this problem in industries such as product design and market research. That while people sometimes know what they want and need, they often have no idea what they want or need. Or what they want and need is impossible to provide given their particular environmental milieu. Or the sample size is so self-selecting it’s impossible to generalize their experience.

    That’s not to say that’s always the case – it’s to say that it’s often the case.

    How do we address that challenge?

    1. Mary Rowe says:

      Hi Steven: I think there’s a difference between ‘products’ and ‘place’. You are right I may not know (yet) that I really need some new time-saving (or fun) product, so designers can’t wait around for the user to tell them what to make. But Steve Jobs wasn’t deciding for me how my neighborhood should be laid out or what kinds of amenities I would want. But this is a balance, I realize. Planners/urban designers with varied experience have lots to share with communities about what might be possible (this space could be adapted for housing here, this is perfect for a ‘pocket park’ …). But the real contribution you can make is to use your observation skills to see how the space is being used (or not) now and then assist the community to think imaginatively about what might be possible. So- for instance — you only suggest a gondola system when you already see there is demand and the right potential conditions for a local community to consider that application –right?

      1. Steven Dale says:

        I think your comment about “observation skills” is apt. Maybe our problem is that we start a planning process from the planner’s perspective, rather than the users’ perspective.

        I realize you see places as different than products, but from a users’ perspective, they’re not really that different.

        Maybe then the planner’s role should be more about identifying users’ wants and needs and observing how users’ actually use their city rather than telling them how they should be using the city.

      2. Mary Rowe says:

        Right. And lots of planners operate this way. (Some not so much).

  2. Mitchell Brown says:

    Thanks for the reason to re-read Jane’s book. I remember reading it for the first time, at the suggestion of my Urban Studies prof., and feeling like a lightning bolt had struck. She enunciated everything I felt, especially as a new refugee to the city of Chicago from the suburbs of Atlanta. Then I met William Whyte – but that’s a story for another day.

    Quickly, in response to Steven Dale’s question regarding how we glean from the “lay person” what they want beyond a survey, we probably observe how they use their neighborhood. We watch, we listen, we participate.

    I love the part where Jane goes to the bar in the North End (maybe all planning classes should be held away from the corrosive influence of the class room) and gets a dose of orthodoxy from her planner friend. But even he knows, in his bones, what he’s telling her is bunkum. What can he do though? He’s been fully versed in the art of bloodletting and knows no other remedy. He ignores what is in plain sight and that he sees with his own two eyes. Its the horror of being wrong, or worse, being snookered. He, I, You, We may have invested vast amounts of time and resources into our education and dang it, I’m going to make the world around me fit the world-view I’ve been presented and worked so hard to acquire. I would address Steven Dale’s last query the same as I did the first – as it relates to city building/planning: observation. To put a fine point on it, observation of the sort William Whyte and the nascent Project for Public Spaces did in its work “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces”. I think this little piece (good excerpts of which can be found on YouTube) puts into practice Jane’s admonition to “observe” what “IS”.

    Hey, thanks again for giving me an excuse to re-read this book again. I hope my post wasnt’ too long-winded or rambling.

    1. Mary Rowe says:

      Hi Mitchell: long-winded and rambling you are not. Thanks for points about observation- what in fact IS. Exactly/

  3. Mitchell, I also adore her comparison to the formerly conventional wisdom about bloodletting. Her comment that “sick people need fortifying, not draining” connects to her later comments about “unslumming and slumming” in Chapter 15, and to her later book The Economy of Cities, where she writes that poverty has no causes — but prosperity does.

    I remember reading that for the first time and needing to sit and think about it for a good long time! It really challenged the way I think about things, and it still does.

  4. Hello Mary, from your friend at the Sustasis Foundation and ESRG! I believe the last time I saw my friend Mary was when we were doing a symposium and discussing Jane Jacobs’ relevance for the reconstruction of New Orleans… (Great relevance, as we concluded.)

    As I said to Heather Ann, I am delighted you’re doing this. I have taught D&L to a number of planning and arch. classes, and the students are always astonished at how far-sighted and still relevant it is, half a century later. I also wrote a blog post on some of the misconceptions about it for Planetizen, at – it might be too early to look at this now, but later in the process it might be of interest. In any case, it’s always best to actually read the book!


    Michael Mehaffy

    1. Mary Rowe says:

      Michael! How wonderful to see you here. I loved your Planetizen post and forwarded/tweeted it when it appeared — fabulous piece about the continued relevance of Jacobs ideas and this book in particular. Whose permission might be needed to reprint it here in full?

      And yes to New Orleans: where self-organization has been the real propeller of authentic recovery there, as you well know. See

      Best to you —

      1. Hi Mary,

        Thanks for your kind words, and please fell free to re-post! Or post an excerpt and link to it. You only need to acknowledge Planetizen, e.g. “This post first appeared on Planetizen” and link.

        I will also do a new post here on Chapter 11, “The Need for Concentration,” at Heather Ann’s kind invitation. I’m looking forward to it — the thorny issue of density, tall buildings, Ed Glaeser’s arguments, and all the rest!

        BTW our Sustasis Foundation is on a growth curve, doing our best to implement Jacobs’ insights on self-organization et al. Yodan Rofe (who posted just after me) is on our board! The link is (an update is under way!)

        Best, m

  5. Yodan Rofe says:

    Hello Mary,
    Thank you all for this great opportunity to look together in depth at Death and Life. I agree with you that the central question is: how come this book is still so relevant today, as criticism of urban planning and the way we conceive cities. How come JJ’s suggestions on city government, on how to organize planning were almost never implemented?
    I also question whether JJ advocated public participation as an end in itself. I think she saw in it the only way at that time to stop urban renewal and the building of urban freeways, but isn’t it often used by local communities to block growing diversity of people and uses in their neighborhoods?

    1. Mary Rowe says:

      Hi Yodan. Hmnn. Well first off its a fools errand to start wondering what Jacobs’ meant to say or would have said etc. I am more comfortable saying how I have interpreted her writings, and how that fits with my own experiences.

      So with that said, I think Jacobs’ view is an organic one: that there are a myriad of processes that make up urban life, of uses and users, and that they connect remarkably in creative, productive ways that are the city. Public participation is essential to ensuring you are reflecting all of that in any plans.

      In Chapter 13 (I am wading ahead but I am posting on this later) Jacobs wrote: “…most city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the formal framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop ––insofar as public policy and action can do––cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish, along with the flourishing of the public enterprises.”

      So you need to find ways to hear about those ‘unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities’.

      My experience tells me that public participation is that it is exactly about engaging diversity:of users and uses. If decisions are made with too narrow a perspective, serving narrow interests, or without the benefit of many differing users, then the outcome is compromised. But a process that is inclusive, especially involving those closest to the experience of the place, will produce a better outcome. (Alert: Jacobs foreshadows crowdsourcing ….)

      But getting this diversity of input is challenging: it can slow things, it can be cumbersome, does this mean planners with valuable experience/knowledge/insight should just fold up their tents (of course not), and what about when it defaults to wrong-headed NIMBYism?

      I remember years ago I asked legendary planner/educator Ron Shiffman (inspirer of the community-based planning movement in the US) about NIMBY –what if the ‘local’ community is keeping out a use that is important — and he matter-of-factly replied “then the local community that’s being consulted isn’t diverse enough”.

      In Toronto a community-based movement called YIMBY ( which the CCE here hosting this club now oversees) formed up after one particularly acrimonious development battle — “YES in my back yard” to illustrate that local communities don’t have to be the ones always reacting negatively, they can also be proactive and work with the development community and city officials to foster uses that meet diverse needs.

      I sense public participation has become overly mechanistic in its practice (e.g. three public meetings here, a newsletter there) but technology may rescue us and create new platforms for diverse users to engage. But the reason for it is fundamental to the Jacobs’ way of seeing the city as diversities of self-organization–– that will course correct as long as they have channels to connect with the whole. IMHO.

      1. Great topics you all raise.

        Isn’t it also the case (as JJ observed) that we need to see the latent power of human cultures, including neighborhoods, to self-organize, to self-regulate, to solve problems and resolve conflicts amazingly well, but not automatically — and hence, our job is to support this self-organization with capacity-building tools and processes?

        And her chief criticism is that we have failed to understand the real dynamic of this “organized complexity,” and have tried instead to supplant a series of over-specialized, over-siloed solutions, that are poorly adapted to the actual process, and that simply don’t work?

        This to me is the message that cuts right across the usual left (collectivist) versus right (individualist) dualities. Both are siloed views. It’s in the dynamic between them that the interesting stuff goes on.

        And when communities oppose ethnic or other forms of diversity, as Yodan noted, that too is likely to be a siloed view — one very likely promoted by individuals or groups with powerful incentives. It’s a distortion of the dynamic, but not a mysterious one. It’s comprehensible, and correctable — but not top-down.

        So there is a fascinating and important “game theory” aspect to all this that I think is the reason economists and other applied users of complexity science find her work so fruitful. (And we planners and architects, as usual, are the last to get a clue!) These problems are not mysterious, they CAN be solved — but they require us to understand the nature of the problem we are really dealing with — “the kind of problem a city is.”

        But now I’m jumping all the way to the end! So enough of that…;)

        Cheers, m

  6. Alan Davies says:

    Fantastic idea and I’m in. I’ve posted my initial thoughts on Chapter 1 on my own blog and will follow up on succeeding chapters.

    1. Mary Rowe says:

      Hello Melbourne! Alan welcome to this. I just read your own post and hope others will too.Your points about spatial determinism are very important: sociologist Eric Klinenberg has raised this too with me (Eric has a brand new book out now called Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, and he also wrote Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, which Jacobs referenced in her last book Dark Age Ahead, 2005), asking to what extent social cohesion and class and race are factors that exit regardless of the built environment.

      But I dunno: seems to me that the way neighborhoods and cities are laid out are pretty important.(Ever tried walking in Phoenix?).

      And yes I agree too bad about the absence of any of Jacobs’ books in electronic formats. That’s the decision of her estate and I like you am sorry to not have copies of all her books always at hand on my Kindle.

  7. Helen Hanratty says:

    I haven’t seen anything in the rules about not posting trivial comments, so I shall feel free to make one.
    I never had the opportunity to meet Jane Jacobs, but I think she understood that is it not only city growth that has contradictory needs. It’s all of life – sort of like a teeter-totter. You need the same weight on either side to keep it in balance.

    1. Hi Helen! Indeed, no rules about “trivial” comments. 🙂 As Michael was mentioning as well, Jane really gets into this topic in Chapter 22 where she talks about the kind of problem a city is. In the Foreward to the Modern Library Edition, she compares cities to other complex systems like natural ecologies which require balance between lots of different forces.

  8. Ms. Rowe, you posed “Where has this left the profession of planning?” in your essay.

    The answer might be easy. Planning, as we write this, is in. It’s hot. It’s “rockstar.” Urbanism is on its way in occupying a place in pop culture, for good and bad.

    Jane Jacobs had a big hand, perhaps the biggest, in influencing this. She’s the de facto patron saint of urbanism and in turn the planning discipline.

    However, with “Death and Life,” and reiterated in several interviews, Jacobs had a palpable disdain for planning as a discipline. She didn’t distinguish between “good” and “bad” planning — the field as it has evolved following the publication of “Death and Life.”

    Planning is a baby-with-the-bathwater field.

    The “Death and Life” neighborhood came about by ordinary people and the circumstances and opportunities that allowed them to happen. This environment I like to call “splendid chaos.” It’s chaos in the sense of randomness (the shouldn’t-but-is), not a sense of distress. The randomness creates the conditions for everything to fit together.

    Planning desires Order. Planning hopes to skip past the “splendid chaos” phase and go directly to the order. Only in this case, it’s meticulously orchestrated, choreographed, directed and produced. And the planner is the conductor, choreographer, director and producer. In other words, it’s a show. It can be a fine show, but it’s still a show.

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