Remembering Jane Jacobs

By Penny Lewis | September 2011
Download pdf

The riots this summer inspired me to revisit Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the Great American City. It’s a fascinating book because it is so rich and sophisticated in its observation of social and public life. It’s frustrating that a text of such quality should be so frequently cited to support half-baked urban designs and uninspired planning dogmas, particularly here in the UK. Jacobs does not conform to British prejudices about the centrality of the welfare state to all forms of human life.

Contrary to popular prejudice Jacobs was not interested in local authority attempts to construct a ‘sense of community’ – actually she was passionately against such an approach which she ridiculed as ‘Salvation by Brick’ (an expression borrowed from the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr).

Jacobs stood in that great American tradition of celebrating the freedom on the individual, the right to privacy and the capacity of autonomous individuals to get along together as part of city life. At the same time as she was writing in defence of the free association and custom and norms developed free from government planning and social engineering, Hannah Arendt, and later Richard Sennett, was attempting to describe the shifts in attitudes to public man and the impact of these changes on urban/civic life.

Back in 2006 I wrote a chapter in a book about community looking at some of the less publicised aspects of Jacobs celebrated work – the aspects of her analysis that many of her fans chose to ignore. At the time I was keen to challenge the idea that architects could create good social behaviour any more than they could be held to account for bad social behaviour.

Only five years ago it still felt as if the profession was carrying the burden of the failure or partial failure of post war mass housing, in particular the tower block. Populist charges of architectural arrogance were still met with ‘Mia Culpa’ defensiveness by many architects (many of whom were not even born when Ronan Point exploded). Somewhere around the late 1990s there had been a shift in the discussion about the responsibility and value of architecture among policy makers; perhaps it coincided with the election of New Labour; but it took a while to filter through to the public arena. After almost two decades of government led urban regeneration initiatives and a buoyant housing market, the discussion started to bend away from the damage caused by architects and planners through Post War expansion and towards an analysis of the potential to value and benefits of good design. For most people this shift felt like a good thing – organisations like CABE – were lobbying for better buildings and more considered urban and landscape design. On reflection it represented a re-engagement with the idea of the architect as the engineer of social behaviour – but this time in place of the patrician architect-planners with their bow-ties it was the feminist collectives with their casual dress and post-its.

The UK’s summer riots have encouraged me to consider the impact of the last few years of regeneration and public consultation initiatives. There is so little written from within the UK that is able to see the recent riots in the context of our countries overbearing welfarism. Writers on the right general see the riots as confirmation of their prejudices that there is a feckless underclass in the UK that will only be eradicated when we cut benefits. On the liberal and left side of society writers react to this is an uncritical defence of New Labour’s and older welfarist policies. Naturally when public services are being cut and downgraded on every side it’s hard to look at recent (higher level) government spending with a critical eye. Most commentators writing in the Architects’ Journal etc intimated that, in one way or another, that the recent riots were a reaction to the breakdown in local government provision of services and facilities- as if these riots were the inevitable outcome of the coalition cuts since May 2010.

Any sensible onlooker – perhaps shocked by the complete lack of commitment to anything exhibited during the riots – must be prepared to ask the question – did any of the New Labour policies adopted over the past two decades contribute to the emergence of this degenerate behaviour? Is it possible that the riots could in some way be the product of a policy approach (call it community regeneration) that has been universally embraced by architects, not the outcome of its demise? The issue demand greater scrutiny – but I think a starting point might be the often unrecorded aspect of Jane Jacobs work. Jacobs was preoccupied with ‘privacy’. She campaigned against the idea of public landlords and said that it was not just the urban form of many new housing projects (or estates) that was flawed.

Jacobs writes so well; “Privacy is precious in cities. It is indispensible. In small settlements everyone knows your affairs. In a city everyone does not – only those you choose to tell will know much about you… Architectural and planning literature deals with privacy in terms of windows, overlooks, sight lines. The idea is that if no-one from outside can peek into where you live- behold, privacy. This is simple-minded…The privacy of keeping one’s personal affairs to those selected to know them, and the privacy of having reasonable control over who shall make inroads on your time, and when , are rare commodities in most of this world, however, and they have nothing to do with the orientation of windows.”

Jacobs argued that the very idea of renting your home from the same organisation that provided welfare support; kept an eye on your children and ran the local shop and laundrette, was problematic. Based on the research work of sociologists, Ellie Lurie and anthropologist Elena Padilla, she argued that this wrap around care created individuals that found it hard to be autonomous and to have proper control over their private life. This in turn she suggested led to a situation in which individuals found it very hard to form relationships with their neighbours because they were overly concerned about other people knowing their business. Recent discussions in the UK about evicting the families of convicted rioters from local authority housing reminded me of Jacobs warnings about the over-bearing social landlord.

In Britain today many urban theorists have developed their thinking within a template that says private=bad and public=good. If you look at the history of housing production and the way in which housing provision and local planning has been privatised in recent years it is understandable how and why this prejudice has emerged. However, it’s important to recognise that the prerequisite for a healthy public life is individuals that are treated as free and self-reliant human beings.

Much of the commentary on the riots has focused on the so-called ‘consumer culture’, the acquisitive nature of society and our cultural preoccupation with ‘things’ rather than values. This approach to understanding our world demands very little thought or engagement with the real nature of things because it relates directly to established popular prejudice. The idea that we as human beings are no longer responsible for our own actions; that we are all driven by impulses grown and developed by the capitalist market, has become common sense in recent years. Like zombies we shop to bring meaning to our lives and when we can’t shop due to financial constraints we loot. It’s a very anti- human view of mankind that sees the human individual as little more than a fleshy robot run by the advertising executives and the multi-national companies.

The consumer culture theory describes certain aspect of our contemporary life, but it doesn’t really explain anything? As individuals we don’t feel or think like robots; our motivations are complex things. We do feel a degree of frustration that so many aspect of social life appear to operate beyond our control. Today there are very few mechanism through which we can individual or collectively assert our will. It’s so long since many people involved themselves in any aspect of public or political life that we have really forgotten who to do it. As the riots showed public participation and community action is reduced to cleaning. Those that attempted to take control of their local areas were roundly condemned as thugs and vigilantes.

A month or so before the riots I took a bus from Clapton to central London, which took me through Hackney and Dalston. This was an old stomping ground for me and I was amazed by the transformation of many of the areas I rode through – particularly Dalston Square a joint initiative between the council, Transport for London and Barratt Homes. From the bus I looked down fondly on the old CLR James library – the building is symbol of the patrician benevolence of Post War Britain, English Modernism – modest but self assured, with plenty of natural light. It had been renamed after the Caribbean revolutionary and cricket lover in the 1980s thanks to the political clout of local black activists.

The old library and the street onto which is fronted appeared to have shrunk in the face of the spanking new square which included a new library, and archive and gallery designed by MUF. MUF specialise in community design which is sensitive to local needs. Call me nostalgic – but I couldn’t help thinking – seeing the two building together that the old 50s library was so much more appealing. It seemed to be built to house books on a brief that worked on the assumption that those that wanted to develop their knowledge or to read for enjoyment would make use of it. The MUF designed library seemed much less generous in its intentions, designed to convince us in some way that reading was good for us – like our five fruit a day. There appeared to be an aspiration to ‘construct a sense of community’ by putting the new library onto a new public square – a contemporary expression of the ‘Salvation by brick’ mentality.

It’s important that architects involve themselves in the discussion about the city and urban life. Not as a marketing exercise or to win new work running community consultations, but because the architects’ role is always a public one. I know MUF as not exactly a young practice – but it does strike me that in recent years too much of the community master-planning work for which they are renowned has been given to young inexperienced practices to allow them to cut their teeth in the same way as they might have built house extensions in the past. The assumption must have been that a young professional is better at communicating with ordinary punters than an old white male. What we have not taken into account is that many contemporary young practices involved in regeneration/community work are too close to their client and too limited in experience to make proper judgements about the precise nature of their intervention.

In the past decade there has been a lot talk about community and empowerment – but who has been empowered? From the outside it looks as if architects have contributed to the professionalization of public life, they have become substitutes for the old style community activists. No doubt we have all sat on Parent Councils and local action committees only to discover that more than 50% of the so-called local people in the room are professionally employed by local government in one form or another.

Those that looked in disbelief at the destruction and burning of facilities in areas that had recently undergone regeneration investment need to take stock. The destruction is juvenile and demoralising. The question must be asked – is there anything that architects have done in the redevelopment of these area which has contributed to the sense abandon? Have these initiatives indulged certain elements while marginalising the less political correct/ older generation in the area? Have these regeneration schemes genuinely empowered or have they been a vehicle for interference? Did the locals have a greater sense of privacy, autonomy and shared ambitions and experience before or after regeneration? These difficult questions need asking. As does the bigger question – did the profession (in particular the RIBA) over-estimate the ‘value of architecture’ – did they get caught up in the rhetoric of New Labour?

My chapter on Jane Jacobs published in The Future of Community, Glasgow 2007
Edited by Clements, Donald, Earnshaw and Williams, and published by Pluto, 2008.

Geoffrey Scott in the Architecture of Humanism wrote that the history of civilization leaves in architecture its ‘truest but most unconscious record’. Today the character of our built environment provides a reasonable accurate reflection of the nature of our economic and social life. Mumbai is dense and vibrant, an expression of the explosive productive energy of India’s emerging economy. In the UK our built environment tells the story of a society in which there is sufficient individual wealth and collective infrastructure to allow for dispersed development. It suggests a society in with a sluggish economy which exercises its creative energy through consumption, in and outside of its urban centres.

From the Greeks onwards, cities have displayed a pattern of urban development that can be read as a physical expression of the character of public life and the value placed on privacy. Today, we are busy constructing ‘public places’ not as a spontaneous expression of public life, but as an expression of its opposite, an anxiety about the decline in social interaction and trust. For the most part, we don’t seem to like the places that are spontaneously produced by economic and social life. Some times they are badly designed, but the common concern is that they are soulless. Perhaps they provide too stark an expression of the unrivaled and unmediated role of the market in our lives? We mostly shop in supermarkets, but many feel they are inauthentic and many people hanker after a world in which high streets were still populated by butchers and green grocers instead of mobile phone outlets. We are habitually on the search for ‘real places’.

The urban village or city neighborhood provides a model of an ideal community and Jane Jacobs’ classic work Death and Life of the Great American City, a celebration of urban life, has been a major reference point for planners over the past two decades. Understanding Jacobs’ contemporary appeal lies in the idea of ‘community’. Jacobs rarely mentions the C-word but her description of the informal networks and shared values is her local neighbourhood, the ‘urban ballet’ or natural pattern of everyday city life, is what policymakers and to some extent the public, aspire to today. In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam credits Jacobs with having invented the idea of ‘social capital’.

Despite the fact that we live with a very different set of conditions from 1950s New York contemporary policy-makers insist on generalizing from Death and Life. Put crudely, today ‘Jacobs’ evokes the idea of streets with a mixture of people, buildings and uses, that is both cosmopolitan and communal. These places have ‘active frontages’ occupied by small independent service providers, small shops, cafes and bars and housing that overlooks the street and creates an informal pattern of passive surveillance. Old buildings have been retained and new blocks are dense but not too high nor too long.

Jacobs’ observations, and her polemic against post war planners, provides today’s ‘Jacobsites’ with the material for two important ideas. The first is that social bonds and shared meanings begin life at a local level with the simple informal interactions of everyday life and that the erosion of these shared values and informal networks began with modern planning and zoning. The second is that through the design of the right kind of dense and diverse environments you can cultivate those social networks, agreed behaviour and shared values.

Street life

In the late 1950s Greenwich Village was populated by upwardly mobile workers and bohemian types (dubbed ‘slum romantics’). It was the start of the post war boom and the process of ‘unslumming’ or ‘gentrification’ was coming into conflict with the city authorities plans for the modernizing the city. Jacobs observed a set of relationships that developed from small commercial transactions but extended to form a framework for acceptable behaviour and a certain collective responsibility for the care and discipline of children. These relationships were thrown up by the market, but invested with some greater social meaning because of their repetitive and local character. In particular she described the way in which the adults working and shopping on the street would take responsibility for the disciplining of and safety of children playing in the street.

Over time these shared experiences created a sense of belonging and social coherence. What is often neglected in this understanding of neighborhood was that it was developing within a broader social and political context; the USA’s post war boom. It’s the broader context, particularly the optimism about the possibility of social improvement, that shapes the character of the everyday relationships between people. Jacobs was describing a certain social solidarity which she and others sensed was being undermined. This sociological shift coincided with modernization and surburbansisation and so in Jacobs work the two are closely linked.

When she wrote Death and Life there was a growing animosity among some intellectuals towards the suburbs and the monotony of middle-class ‘bedroom communities’. Suburbanites, the saying went, arrived at Democrats and left as Republicans. In the Uses of Disorder Richard Sennett says: “My belief is that disorder is better than dead, predetermined planning, which restricts effective social exploration. It is better for men to be makers of historical change than for the functional design of a pre-experiential plan to be ‘carried out.” Mono-cultural environments, argued the critics, produces one-dimensional citizens that were ill-equipped to negotiate anything other than their own familiar environment.

It’s interesting that these ideas about diversity have really come of age in the past decade. Today it’s part of the planners’ and government mantra that new settlements dominated by a single class or ethnic group are spontaneously damaging to the broader social fabric of society. As a result planning policy is now designed to manufacture a ‘social mix’ to prevent the concentration of disadvantaged, low income groups in given geographical areas.

At the core of Jacobs argument is that good places are founded on ‘the street’ and implicit is that when modern planners abandoned the primacy of the street frontage they also jettisoned public life. The historic desire in the twentieth century to make the world ordered and organised, whether it was Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse or Howard’s Garden City, she argues destroyed social cohesion and the idea of ‘balanced’ communities.

Jacobs was not the first person to suggest that modern planning might undermine social capital. The idea that re-housing is destructive, because it destroys social bonds is clearly expressed in Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott which was first published in the USA in 1957. The study looks at family and neighbourhood relationships in Bethnal Green and how these are affected by moves to a new development in Greenleigh, Essex. The authors found that the majority wanted to stay in the East End, but moved to get houses and gardens. The book recommended the movement of street and kinship groupings as a whole rather than in nuclear families to “enable the city to be rebuilt without squandering the fruits of social cohesion”.

The report went on to say “Even when the town planners have set themselves to create communities anew as well as houses, they still put their faith in buildings, sometimes speaking as though all that was necessary for neighbourliness was a neighbourhood unit, for community spirit, a community centre. If this were so, then there would be no harm in shifting people about the country, for what is lost could be regained by skilful architecture and design. But there is surely more to a community than that.” In the 1950s you can see the potential confusion developing between the provision of communal facilities which was a crucial element in the development of successful new settlements.

In retrospect the critics of post-war planning have recast the process of re-housing as one of disempowerment. In reality the process was much more complex – and often liberating, but, despite the evidence to contrary its become a common sense belief that post-war reconstruction, and in particular the tower blocks, is responsible for the decline in social cohesion.

In the late 1970s Jacobs’ work generated interest in the UK. It was a period that saw the election of Rod Hackney, a community architect involved in the rehabilitation of terraced housing in Northern England, elected as head of the RIBA. As Hobsbawm wrote in the Age of Extremes suddenly everyone was talking up communities at the very moment when they seemed to have almost disappeared.

In the late 1970s the Byker development in Newcastle was built as a polemic against post-war re-housing. Following extensive public consultation Ralph Erskine designed the estate so that tenants could be relocated street by street, into housing specifically designed to reflect the needs of individual families and extended families. By the 1990s Byker was experiencing all of the same problems as other large social housing estates, it had deteriorated dramatically and was considered and undesirable area by many tenants. The experience suggests that the problems facing post war social housing were much wider than those of housing design.

During the 1980s theorists made the unimaginative leap from Jacobs libertarian thesis to crude determinism is best expressed in the work of Alice Coleman and the book Utopia on Trial which was published in 1985 in the UK, in a context in which the post war optimism of Greenwich village had been replaced by the heady mix of bravado and anxiety associated with popular capitalism. Alongside opposition to the dismantling of the welfare state there was growing concern in the decline of ‘community’. Coleman argued that certain urban forms cultivated “complex system of interlocking levels and circles of acquaintanceship, which gives the community a clear knowledge of its accepted mores, and hence practical guidelines for behaviour – an essential framework for stability.” In 2007 Byker was listed and held up as an exemplar of good design. As a society we remain blind to the fact that the Coleman’s thesis has been exposed as having very limited benefits.

Salvation by brick

The relationship between society and planning is a complex one. The outcome of architectural innovation – particularly in relation to planning and housing depends on a whole number of economic, political and social factors. Today it’s become acceptable to argue that a certain type of urban design or architecture (e.g. The Tower block or council housing estates) ‘don’t work’ without reference to the context in which they were commissioned.

This is an issue on which Jacobs was very astute. Jacobs rejected anything that smelt of paternalism. “The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they chose impossibly superficial means for doing so.” While Jacobs pioneered the idea that short blocks were better than long ones for encouraging social interaction she did not believe that urban forms could determine human behaviour.

In Death and Life she explained how the local housing authorities aspiration to create a sense of ‘togetherness’ through shared facilities had eroded many tenants sense of privacy and freedom and forced them to withdraw from public life. “Good shelter is a useful good in its self, as shelter. When we try to justify good shelter instead on the pretentious grounds that it will work social or family miracles, we fool ourselves. Reinhold Niebuhr has called this particular self-deception, ‘The doctrine of salvation by brick’, warned Jacobs.

Her observations about the way in which adults in Greenwich Village spontaneously took on responsibility for socializing children demonstrate a real belief in the capacity for human self-organization. “The myth that playgrounds and grass and hired guards or supervisors are innately wholesome for children and that city streets, filled with ordinary people, are innately evil for children, boils down to a deep contempt for ordinary people,” she wrote.

Take for example the idea of ‘anonymity’. Jacobs describes the relationship with the local shop keeper. It’s an interesting relationship. She can trust him to look after the keys for her apartment when she has a visitor coming form out of town. She also knows that he, unlike a shopkeeper in a rural village, will not ask who the visitor is or the purpose of their visit. He respects her privacy. There is both element of trust and a clear sense of boundaries – anonymity is a crucial element in a city in which people are living in such close proximity.

Oscar Newman work on new housing in New York had identified anonymity as a problem. Alice Coleman’s work built on Newman’s research to argue that anonymity was undermining the stability of the neighbourhood.

In Utopia on Trial Coleman wrote: “Successful city neighbourhoods … proved to be close textured, high-density assemblages of mixed land uses, where many people lived within walking distance of many destinations and there is constant coming and going on foot along a dense network of streets. This pattern works naturally to ensure the emergence of a firm social structure…” So Jacobs’ ambition, the expansion of and intensification of great cities, was translated by Coleman into a much more conservative aspiration.

When interviewed a few years before her death Jacobs criticized the New Urbanism movement, arguing that they didn’t understand the organic and spontaneous character of places. In the same interview in Reason magazine reaffirmed her commitment to liberalism. Asked if what changes she would like to see in planning – she argued for one law which demanded that there should be no prescribe land use plans for cities. Her concern was to challenge zoning policy.

The approach of contemporary Jacobsites is inimical to the spirit of Jacobs’ writings. Ironically today in the UK we have an equally prescriptive planning policy – but in place of zoning we have enforced diversity, that demands that developers produce mixed- development regardless if there is a demand for it. The evidence for this irrationality is the sea of vacant ground floor retail units you see in many new developments in postindustrial cities like my home town of Glasgow. There is a collective fiction that we can turn back time, wipe out the supermarket and create a new localized economy run by small independent shop keepers.

Today, social solidarity within neighbourhoods in the UK is often weak regardless of the character of the quality of the built environment, because we organise the delivery of local services around risk management and a highly prescriptive and mean-spirited policy of enforced inclusion. This local picture stands against a backdrop in which the idea of freedom and trust are largely derided in favour of rights and responsibilities.


Scott, G. (1914) The Architecture of Humanism. Architectural Press. London
Jacobs, J (1961) Death and Life of the Great American City Random House New York
Donaldson, S. (1969) The Suburban Myth. Columbia University Press.
Coleman, A. (1985) Utopia on Trial. Hilary Shipman. London.
Young and Willmott. (1962) Family and Kinship in East London. Pelican. London
Sennett, R. (1970) The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, Vintage. New York
Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling Alone, Simon & Schuster New York
Steigerwald B, (March 2001) an associate editor and columnist for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, interviewed Jacobs for Reason Magazine
Hobsbawm E, (1994) Age of Extremes Michael Joseph. London.