Greenwich Village 1961 (reckon I saw that cat's grandfather somewhere not so long ago!)

I started re-reading the late Jane Jacobs’ famous book, The death and life of great American cities, last night. It’s decades since I read it and to be honest I’m not sure if I ever read all of it. I suspect that’s true of many people – maybe it’s one of those books Italo Calvino calls “the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them”.

I’m reading it because I discovered this wonderful new on-line bookclub devoted to urbanism (H/T Jarrett Walker). The citybuilder book club is operated jointly by the Centre for City Ecology and Creative Urban Projects, in Toronto. The club’s first book is Death and Life. Anyone can join in and I’m giving it a go – I think it’s a fabulous idea.

Every Monday and Wednesday, a “Guide” from one of these organisations will blog on the chapters nominated for reading that week (here’s the timetable – from Feb 1 to April 16). On Tuesdays and Thursdays there will be additional posts by guest “Guides” – some of them are well known e.g. Jarrett Walker from Human Transit and Aaron Renn from The Urbanophile. Readers can join in the discussion through comments.

This week the “Club” is reading Chapter One, the Introduction. There’s already a post up from Mary Rowe, Why you will read and re-read this book, with some comments. There’s more to come from other writers.

It’s hard to over-state the international stature of Jacobs in both planning and economics, or the impact this book has had on current attitudes to cities. For some, Death and Life, has the status of the Bible or Mao’s Little Red Book – there’s a seemingly infinite number of homilies and ‘gotchas’ to define, explain and justify what should and shouldn’t be done in urban policy.

There’s an irony here. She gives a lot of space in the Introduction to outlining how the dominant urban ideology of the 50’s (the book was published in 1961) was shaped by Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City concept (and others, including architects Le Corbusier and Daniel Burnham), but she has much the same pervasive influence now.

The Introduction doesn’t set out her vision in great detail. Because we’re so familiar with her ideas it’s easy for the modern reader to see where she’s going, but back when the book was published the reader would’ve only gotten an inkling, albeit an exciting one, from those first few pages. However the reader would’ve been in no doubt of the value she attributes to diversity and the importance of looking at the “fine grain” of city life. And he would certainly have got the message that Jacobs was appalled by the preoccupation of planners with separating activities and functions into discrete areas.

She spends time detailing the contemporary horrors of urban renewal and freeway building, as well as the obsession with replacing “slums” with towers and “grass, grass, grass” (fortunately, the worst excesses of that period, including the almost complete absence of consultation, are well behind us). Her criticism of the designers of the day for thinking in terms of land parcels as the basic building block of cities rather than the street – one’s inherently private, the other inherently social – provides a pithy statement of her philosophy.

Perhaps there’s a touch of Confirmation Bias on my part, but I see a lot of support in the Introduction for my view that many of those involved in designing cities are inclined to attribute too much power to the physical environment in determining human behaviour. She emphasises it’s not transport design or the placement of activities that makes a city vital but complex economic and social concerns. The book, she says, is about how city’s work, not how they look.

There’s another irony here, because in my experience those who lean to physical determinism are often devout Jacobsians. This is an issue I’ll keep in mind as I read through the book between now and 16 April.

She finishes the introduction with an important caveat – the book is not only about big cities, it’s explicitly and specifically about the dense inner city e.g. Manhattan. She also says:

I hope no reader will try to transfer my observations into guides as to what goes on in towns, or little cities, or in suburbs which are today totally suburban…(they)…are totally different organisms from great cities.

Chapters 2 and 3 are listed for the week beginning Monday 6 Feb. At the moment I’m struggling with an awful PDF version of the book because I couldn’t find an EPUB anywhere. So I’ve reluctantly had to resort to getting a paperback. Unfortunately my local bookshop doesn’t have it in stock, either in their streetfront store or their parallel on-line operation. So it’s either $16 delivered from Book Depository in the UK (who say they have stock and in my recent experience are very fast) or $24 plus postage from Borders Australia.

I love this idea of an on-line bookclub and I fully intend to keep up the reading program and follow the Guides and comments at Citybuilder. I’ll also try to blog here on this extremely important book. Comments welcome. Maybe we could do something similar – if anyone wants to volunteer to run a similar exercise on a book like (say) Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit, I’d be happy to create a separate page on The Urbanist for it. My address is on the About page.

P.S. While we’re in the 60s mood – here’s the amazing voice of the late Karen Dalton. She was a regular at Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village when Dylan first appeared there circa January 1961. [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y-BIKjypNsE[/youtube]