Book Review: The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs

By Ng Yi-Sheng

In his fifth piece for GRC, Ng Yi-Sheng harks back to the architecture/urban planning canon with a review of Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities—an apt text for our times, which becomes all the more so poignant in its assertion of the very essential human need for communal spaces, and for community, and how it is in these “village squares” that the spirit of a city really resides.


jane jacobs. image courtesy of the author.

Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1992. Image courtesy of the author.

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I’ve gotta be honest: I first heard about Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) through memes. My Gen Z friends were sharing posts on Facebook by the Numtots—a group formally titled New Urbanist Memes for Transit-Oriented Teens—wall to wall sh*tpost humour about urban planning and public transport.

The Numtots arose from a culture of young leftists sick of American suburban car culture, longing for the buzz of urban density, the convenience, democracy and environmental soundness of affordable public transit. I mostly got into them because I’m horny for subway lines (don’t judge me) but I got curious about their ideas. So when I found out that their idol was someone named Jane Jacobs—their URL is literally <>!—I figured I might as well check her out from the NTU Library.

Jacobs was a journalist and activist. She became famous in 60s for opposing the NYC urban planner Robert Moses—the guy who demolished the magnificent old Penn Station building and tried to run an expressway through Lower Manhattan. Her most famous work is The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), and it’s honestly a delightful read.

She starts out by straight-out mocking the ideologies of policymakers who insist that districts like Boston’s North End are slums that must be cleared, just because of their population density, even though they admit that they love taking strolls there— not to mention their low delinquency, disease, and infant mortality. (10) She rolls her eyes at car culture—“What if we fail to stop the erosion of cities by automobiles?… There is a silver lining to everything. In that case we Americans will hardly need to ponder a mystery that has troubled men for millennia: What is the purpose of life? For us, the answer will be clear… The purpose of life is to produce and consume automobiles.” (370) And perhaps most interestingly, in an age before the feminist revolution, she uses her role as a woman and a mother to bolster her argument, highlighting issues of safety for herself and her children—e.g. how her son uses the myriad streets of the city to escape bullies, actively avoiding the prized public playground, where there’s nowhere to hide. (77)

Yet there’s something very sobering about the experience of reading this book. I’d assumed that 21st century Singapore would get high grades from her—the Numtots seem to like us well enough, after all, given our status as a densely packed, highly networked city-state, bound together with MRT, LRT, and bus systems; suppressing car culture with COE and ERP. But the more I read, the more I realised how distant we are from her ideal vision of a city.

Jacobs gives a glitteringly poetic description of her Greenwich Village neighbourhood in a sequence she calls “The Ballet of Hudson Street”. (50-53) From the morning rituals of students marching to school and the opening of Italian delicatessens and Jewish hardware stores, to the lunchtime breaks in bars and bakeries and afternoon strolls of baby carriages and teenagers in evening wear for their dates, to conversations deep at night on the stoop—an urban idyll only hinted at in our childhood memories of Sesame Street. Through this diorama she demonstrates several qualities that make a district vital and beloved: the way mixed-use buildings keep the sidewalk active at all hours of the day; the way this sense of outdoor neighbourliness creates a community that’s diverse, intimate, and genuinely caring; the way this street life actually increases safety, since residents feel invested in the community and are present enough to actually watch over its activities, confronting any drunkards or bullies who might bring harm to the area.

Does anywhere in Singapore feel the same way? Perhaps kampungs and shophouse streets, once upon a time. The town centres of housing districts, maybe, but HDB blocks are just too damn tall for a sense of collective community—Jacobs notes the precious height limit of six storeys in her Manhattan as a means of ensuring residents can observe the goings-on of the street below. And most void decks don’t have a chance, especially if they don’t have a provision shop downstairs—they end up isolated most of the day, and they’d be regarded as unsafe spaces if Singapore wasn’t so damn policed to begin with.

Jacobs makes other appeals to 1960s USA that are just as relevant to 2010s Singapore—she calls on city planners to preserve old buildings with distinctive architecture; to recognise that green parks don’t actually bring a neighbourhood to life if no-one’s in them.

But for the purposes of this blog, where I’ve been mostly talking about public city squares, what I find really intriguing is her reminder of the need for village squares—spaces for community, not just in city centres and transport hubs, but also right where we live.

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder,” she notes, “and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and be served.” (15)

If only Jacobs’ words had been heeded by Singapore’s own early visionaries of public housing like The Cheang Wan: maybe then we could’ve preserved more of our original kampung and shophouse communities, rather than dismissing them as slums and clearing them away in the name of progress.

Though Singapore prides itself as a splendidly designed city, she implores officials to consider not just the needs, but the desires of the ground. God’s eye-view city plans of a Garden City or the Radiant City are doomed to fail if humans don’t embrace them, so we have to embrace the vitality where we find it, or risk eradicating it altogether—and here I remember the Tiong Bahru Bird Arena famous for fifty years as a gathering spot for old men and their caged songbirds, renovated in 2007 when the surrounding blocks were torn down—only to remain empty, abandoned by the bird-lovers that sustained it.

But enough of regret. What, then, is her advice for us in the 2010s? Seriously, #whatwouldjanejacobsdo ? Quite simple: organise and fight back. That’s how she mobilised her neighbourhood against Robert Moses’ proposed highways: by circulating petitions and confronting the government.

We don’t just deserve trains (though they do turn me on) and picturesque city centres. We deserve to have public squares on the very streets where we eat and sleep. To actually *live* in a community.

Is that too much to ask?

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Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.