Review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities

Jane Jacobs
Rating: 5/5

The first half of this book is a phenomenal introduction to thinking about /how to live in a city./ On every page I was struck by an insight that codified what was the difference between cities I loved living in, and ones I didn't. Furthermore, the same analysis can be viewed as advice about how to choose a place to live, and what to do when you get there. As someone working on a big, unstructured move of my own in the next few months, this is particularly timely advice.

The second half is very clearly not meant for me; it talks about what to do with a city in order to avoid its death and promote its liveliness. While this is certainly an interesting topic, it's not one I have much agency over, nor do I plan to ever be in such a situation. After several chapters with low insight density, I decided to skim the remainder of the book, and I don't feel like I missed much.

Jacobs' argument rests on four pillars:
1) city streets are not just thoroughfares, they are where life in the city is /actively lived/
2) a neighborhood must bring in diverse people for diverse reasons in order to make streets safe
3) blocks must be short in order to facilitate many paths through them
4) there is a critical mass of humans necessary for city life, and thus high density residences are a necessity

Amidst these points, Jacobs discusses how parks fail, raising children in urban environments, what's wrong with housing projects, the ruinous effects of borders on neighborhoods and districts, along with a bevy of other somewhat tangential points. I suspect if I were a city planner I would have found a lot more value in these sections, but, well, I'm not and so I didn't.

In terms of how this book actually changed my thoughts on choosing a place to live, the following insights were particularly influential to me:

* When choosing where to live, work top down. Select a city based on stereotypes about the people who live there, and then drill down from there. Don't begin with the question of "what do I like in a city" and find a place that optimizes that.
* Life occurs in densely populated streets. Find a neighborhood that reflects this, and make an effort to spend your time outside.
* Neighborhoods run by way of an implicit, unofficial local government of citizens who have the interests of the neighborhood at heart. Think small business owners, church leaders, home owners, postal workers, etc. Being such a public figure is not a particularly hard thing to do, and should be strived for if you're looking for a sense of belonging, because everybody knows these people.
* Take responsibility for your neighborhood. Help people who look lost, even if they don't ask for it; keep an eye out for suspicious characters; let people know if they've missed the last bus; etc.
* Avoid places with large amounts of concurrent growth; these places will lose their diversity and die sooner than later.
* Old buildings gain economic value over time, in terms of the riskier ventures their low rent can afford.
* Aim to live on the seam between two neighborhoods; the juxtaposition of the two cultures is what creates an interesting place to live.

I'd rate the first half of this book as one of the top five books I've ever read. Very strongly recommended.