Jane Jacobs: Intuition vs. Evidence

jane jacobs

After having read countless authors who cite Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and having intuitively come to many Jane Jacobs-esque conclusions on my own over the years, I finally decided it was time to read the original work.

Many of the conclusions Jacobs comes to resonate with my personal experience. Critiquing the notion that parks are safer for children than streets, Jacobs writes: “what significant change does occur if children are transferred from a lively city street to the usual park… The children have moved from under the eyes of a high numerical ratio of adults, into a place where the ratio of adults is low or even nil” (1961, p. 77). Indeed, I remember the first few fights I took part in as an adolescent involving hoards of us traveling up into the streets of Park Slope, Brooklyn, in an attempt to distance ourselves from our middle-school, the site of supposed authority. Those street-fights were inevitably broken up by the “eyes on the street,” random passers-by, as well as the people whose brownstones we were fighting outside of. I remember the feeling of powerlessness and injustice that we couldn’t even assault each other without those annoying adults intervening, which lasted only as long as it took us to realize that we could simply fight in the school-yard for much longer before being detected. In that same schoolyard, the day before graduation, one of my classmates found an abandoned gun, took out the clip, and not realizing there was a bullet still in the chamber, shot another classmate in the chest, killing him. It would be hard to imagine anything like that happening on a sidewalk.

ms 51Other of Jacobs’ notions seem counter-intuitive at first, but nevertheless seem true after reading her argument. “The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common” (p. 150). Living on a block with a bunch of drunkards hanging around outside of bars may sound dangerous, but sounds a lot less dangerous than walking around at night on nearly empty streets. 5th Avenue in Park Slope seems like a terrific example of this, having gone from being a particularly dangerous avenue with little night life in the 90s, to a vibrant avenue with a seemingly never-ending night life today.

Perhaps what shocked me most about The Death and Life of American Cities, however, is its complete lack of references and citations. For such an oft-cited, influential book to lack any semblance of academic standards not only calls into question the merit of the text, but anybody who cites it unquestioningly. Especially ironic is that Jacobs’ work is an attack on orthodox, modernist city planning, which too was justified less by scientific research, and more by politics.

Nevertheless, had Jacobs only made claims that she could verify via academic research, at a time when her field was nowhere near as robust as it is now, we wouldn’t have this text. Furthermore, the politics provoked by this text have helped preserve the Jacobsian city, allowing academic research to legitimately compare the merits of various forms of city planning. In a world governed by politicians, not academics, perhaps the best remedy to anti-social dogmas is not pro-social research, but pro-social dogmas.

– Fritz Tucker, Zeteo Contributor

One comment

  1. William Eaton

    Lack of citations segment fascinating. If we were (with the help of empirical studies?) to come to the conclusion that most such studies reflected, above all, the normative baggage of the researchers, we might learn to embrace those not afraid to speak for themselves? And perhaps social science could be compared to some branches of mathematics, in which possibilities are developed on a purely theoretical or imaginative basis, and it is left to time (and capital?) to decide on their usefulness in some other “real world”?

    Meanwhile and perhaps naively, we are shocked, again and again, by the level of gun violence in the USA.


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