Saving Traditional City Neighborhoods

  • Prosperity
  • 1958

American cities were just beginning to fall apart in the middle of the twentieth century—a process accelerated by many of the technocratic efforts undertaken to “improve” them, like “urban renewal,” public housing, rent control, freeway construction, and architectural “modernism”—when a unknown scholar named Jane Jacobs came along and shouted “Stop!” A diminutive woman with a sharp pen and a beady eye for the way human nature and the physical world really interlink, Jacobs convinced the Rockefeller Foundation to fund her research and writing on the subtle factors that make city neighborhoods safe, efficient, and enjoyable, and how easily these evolved traits can be snuffed out by social engineers. Her resulting 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, became a classic that transformed views of architecture, city planning, and government administration. It helped birth a rebellion against modern design and planning, discredited the machine aesthetic, championed a return to human-scale buildings, accelerated historic preservation, and revived traditional architecture and traditional understandings of what makes a city thrive. It continues to echo loudly today in the offices of those who build and regulate cities, and American urban areas are now again growing rather than collapsing.