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In the 1960s, it was a rallying cry for denser, more diverse and healthier urban spaces. Today, it’s every mayor’s favourite book. But should it be?

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Jane Jacobs sits at a 2002 public meeting about a new City of Toronto official plan during the mayoralty of Mel Lastman, foreground. In the 1960s, Ms. Jacobs made her mark as one of the world's leading urbanists with her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Doug Saunders is The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, and the author of books including Arrival City and Maximum Canada.

The story begins in a tired corner of the city, maybe an old light-industrial district. First come the artists and students, drawn by low rents and gritty charms; they bring galleries and bars and restaurants. Immigrant families settle, buy cheap houses, open shops. The resulting street life attracts visitors with cash in their pockets. Some stick around, decide it’s an okay place to buy a home and raise children, and bring another level of services and businesses. For a while its streets are the liveliest place in town, until higher rents and middle-class stasis drive the young and creative into another run-down district a few blocks away, leaving the neighbourhood stable and prosperous, but more homogenous and somewhat boring.

That vision, of the urban district as a living organism, morphing and evolving and improving on its own, is a familiar story today. Sixty years ago, it was almost beyond imagination. In 1961, cities were depopulating as middle classes abandoned them, their old downtown districts portrayed as repellant accumulations of filth and crime that governments wanted replaced with public-housing projects or elevated highways. Banks often wouldn’t make mortgage loans for downtown houses, while a move to the ballooning ‘burbs was subsidized.

So it’s hard to exaggerate the shock of novelty provoked by the publication that year of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that offered an almost scientific dissection of urban neighbourhoods and the forces of life and economics that governed them. Its starting point was that story about an old district layering ever-new communities onto its little streets – a flourishing of urban life its author, Jane Jacobs, called “the sidewalk ballet.”

That was one of many novel phrases and concepts the book introduced or popularized. So too were the notion of high population density and crowded sidewalks as the solution to crime (“eyes on the street”), the tight mingling of housing and industry and commerce on the same streets as a path to tranquil neighbourhoods, the understanding of landlords and developers as potential forces of good, of big-money government redevelopment projects as a problem, of local-level spontaneity and microscale local investments – “organized complexity” – as a solution.

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A Spanish-language copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities sits alongside some of her other books at Ms. Jacobs's home office in 2006.Ken Armstrong/The Globe and Mail

No other book has so transformed our understanding of cities, not just in North America but worldwide – and now, 60 years after its publication and 15 years after Ms. Jacobs’s death in Toronto, it’s fair to say that no work has transformed cities themselves so much.

And that’s become a problem. While The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains a book everyone ought to read, for its conversationally persuasive style as much as for its ideas, it is far less valuable today as a guide to action for mayors and planners – in large part because it has become a victim of its own overwhelming success. Ms. Jacobs’s act of painstaking observation has had the effect of changing the very thing being observed, to the point that our opening story of the gritty old neighbourhood no longer exists in most real-life cities.

Yet it is at just this moment that Death and Life has become every mayor’s favourite book. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and London Mayor Sadiq Khan have both evoked Ms. Jacobs’s name in launching bold pandemic-era plans, explicitly modeled on the ideas in its pages, to revitalize their city neighbourhoods and render them more intimate – at least in the central-city areas that were Ms. Jacobs’s focus. Scores of other mayors, from Portland to Ottawa to Lisbon, are rushing to embrace the “15-minute city” concepts Ms. Hidalgo has popularized, in which each downtown neighbourhood has all key aspects of life within walking distance, a concept drawn directly from this book.

That’s partly because this is now comparatively easy to do, if you limit your scope to the urban core – in good part because Ms. Jacobs’s diverse-neighbourhood ideas have been mainstream urban politics since the 1970s.

The biggest neighbourhood-level challenges facing mayors today involve challenges -- and parts of town -- that weren’t envisioned in her book. Cozy central-city neighbourhoods are no longer jeopardized by mega-freeways and huge inhuman housing projects; if anything, they suffer too much intimacy, too little population and too little change. And the suburbanization of immigration and poverty mean the districts that most need to shift and evolve are the ones least able to do it on their own, without large-scale rescues. The book’s ideas remain compelling, but today’s mayors need a few new chapters.

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Ms. Jacobs sits on her porch in 2004.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

In 1961, Death and Life attracted hate mail from famous planners and politicians, and received an essay-length, misogyny-tinged denunciation from the great historian Lewis Mumford, who saw socialist central-planned garden-city neighbourhoods and strict separation of working and residential districts as the only urban solution. Today, that opposition has largely vanished, and the book’s core concepts are mainstream canon in urban-design schools and big-city planning departments.

Which might seem surprising, because Death and Life is first and foremost an attack on urban planning, a cry to get the state out of the neighbourhood and leave it to shift and grow and plan on its own.

Among its most compelling chapters are those making the case against government-owned public housing, pedestrianized streets, community centres and other perennial planner favourites.

And Ms. Jacobs is perhaps best remembered, beyond this book, as an activist who waged legendary and much-chronicled battles against the visions of two mighty planning bosses, Robert Moses of New York and Fred Gardiner of Toronto.

The two homes she famously lived in, 555 Hudson St. in New York’s West Village (then half-industrial and rat-infested) and then 69 Albany Ave. in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood (then a low-rent student ghetto) were both in the heart of districts that would have been destroyed by those men’s plans. They would have cut their cities in half with superhighways running though New York’s SoHo, Little Italy and Greenwich Village and through Toronto’s dense residential neighbourhoods surrounding Spadina Avenue and Dupont Street, both of which were to become 10-lane expressways.

It was during her fight against the first project, Mr. Moses’s Lower Manhattan Freeway, that Ms. Jacobs developed many of the ideas that animate Death and Life. Some she drew from the innovative concepts of the University of Chicago’s pioneering urban sociology department, others from heterodox urbanists and scientists of the time. But most came from her own journalist’s critical eye, from her constant, probing questioning and notetaking.

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Anti-expressway protesters march across the University of Toronto campus to Queen's Park in 1970.Barrie Davis/The Globe and Mail

The hated freeway proposals made her notice something crucial about neighbourhoods, something that became central to her case in Death and Life and which remains important today: If they’re not tightly interconnected, if they don’t easily bring foot traffic from adjoining districts, richer and poorer, they will eventually fail as neighbourhoods.

As much as neighbourhoods need to be walkable and diverse in activity in order to thrive – the part of the Jane Jacobs formula that’s invoked by mayors today – she was equally clear that none of that will work if any kind of border or barrier, physical or psychological, prevents people from easily entering. Whether those borders take the form of freeways or the winding, grassy streets of an apartment complex or a campus or industrial park, she writes, they will “tear a city to tatters.” Boundaries are urban death.

After her victories against the mega-boundaries of Messrs. Moses and Gardiner in the early 1970s, cities in North America and Europe largely stopped trying to use top-down planning to create these kinds of physical borders in their inner cities.

As a consequence, those gritty urban neighbourhoods began to thrive, even if they didn’t always have the population density or diverse range of commercial activities to completely fulfil her “conditions to generate exuberant diversity.”

Downtown is no longer a blank slate. Ms. Jacobs’s former flat at 555 Hudson most recently sold, a dozen years ago, for US$3.5-million – as she said, a few years before her death, she could never afford to be a writer there now. Her Albany Avenue house is now certainly worth more than $2-million. There are increasingly few former wholesale districts or neglected residential quarters near the city centre, in New York or Toronto or any economically successful major city, that can metamorphose and transform the way neighbourhoods do in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

The neighbourhoods that are hungry for transformation today are more often located far into the inner-suburban perimeter, surrounded by those grassy boundaries, where no community organizing or bicycle lane or “15-minute” plan or gradual, organic change will remove those visitor-blocking barriers and make the sidewalks dance. Today’s urban challenges need another approach.

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Ms. Jacobs's personal study, shown a few months after her death in 2006, was left more or less untouched by her family before they put the house on 69 Albany Ave. up for sale at an asking price of $850,000. Today, the Edwardian house would likely be worth more than $2-million, an about-average price for the neighbourhood that Ms. Jacobs helped to save from the Spadina Expressway plan.Photos: Ken Armstrong/The Globe and Mail

When I was on a a lecture tour of China nine years ago to discuss my book Arrival City, an urban-planning student at Peking University raised her hand to ask a question. “She wants to know if your work is an example of –” and the next phrase gave my translator pause – “Jane-Jacobs-Thought?”

I’d hear variations on that question in several cities, and they surprised me. Not the question itself, which was a good one – my work in this area really began with conversations and interviews I had with Ms. Jacobs in the 1990s, and is in many ways an elaboration on, and argument with, her ideas.

Rather, I was surprised to discover that Death and Life was well-known reading in many Chinese urban-planning departments. You don’t need to spend much time in China’s major cities to notice that Jane-Jacobs-Thought has hardly won the day – the top-down, big-money ideas of Mr. Moses and his ilk are a lot more visible.

Where the book’s ideas have prevailed in mainland China, however, is in the latter-day movements to preserve the remaining fragments of the old working-class districts of major cities – the alleyways and narrow courtyards of Beijing’s old low-rise hutong districts and Shanghai’s labyrinthine shikumen neighbourhoods. The bits of these that have been saved, while popular with hipster homebuyers and pleasant to visit, are often more museum pieces than living neighbourhoods. They are far from urban organisms, owing to the heavy-handed planning and the barriers, physical and psychological, that surround them. It is impossible for these districts ever again to change from within.

That’s also the big flaw in the use of Death and Life by mayors today. Ms. Hidalgo’s “15-minute” plans are nothing but virtuous, and are well worth imitating. But they don’t extend beyond Paris’s ring road that divides city from suburb, and in practice are mainly focused within the 17th-century wall that delineates the grand boulevards best known to tourists. The problem is that within this circle, with a few important and deserving exceptions, Paris already largely is a 15-minute city, and has been for a long time.

Likewise, the pandemic-era instinct to add bicycle lanes and wider sidewalks to already tight-knit sections of a city is absolutely virtuous, and welcomed by privileged downtown residents like me. But most of those districts are no longer the ones that need help – they’re mostly finished evolving. In an already-successful setting, these small, well-meaning interventions come close to what Ms. Jacobs called “the art of urban taxidermy.”

The sociologist and urbanist Richard Sennett was a friend of Ms. Jacobs’s from her Greenwich Village years (there’s a famous photo from 1962 of the two of them chatting in the Village’s White Horse Tavern, a man passed out between them). He recently published a fascinating book, Building and Dwelling, in which he comes to terms with the limits of Death and Life – “I dwelt in Jane Jacobs’s shadow as a young man,” he writes, “Gradually, I have emerged from it.”

Specifically, what he sees missing, what he calls “Jane Jacobs’s Achilles heel,” is the sort of large-format planning and infrastructure that makes her bottom-up, microscale evolutions possible in the first place. He writes: “It won’t do to call, as she does, the city a ‘collection of communities’ – infrastructure, like roads, electricity or water, needs to be built by scaling from whole to part.”

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A woman rides an electric bike through Paris last summer, when the COVID-19 pandemic led the city to rethink its urban plan.Benoit Tessier/Reuters

If the urban circle of life is to be restored amid crises of affordability and segregation, much larger interventions will be required. Mayors and urban activists need to think beyond this book, and imagine a set of chapters that Ms. Jacobs herself could not have imagined.

The part of Death and Life that should continue to be required reading for any mayor is her description of the four things that make urban neighbourhoods economically and socially successful, organic and self-evolving places.

Those four factors – “good mixtures of primary uses, frequent streets, a close-grained mingling of different ages in their buildings, and a high concentration of people” – remain true, as much so in the alleyways of downtown as in the grassy slab-apartment districts of the inner ‘burbs. But they happen to be four things that simply don’t exist in today’s most troubled urban neighbourhoods -- and their problems won’t be solved until those factors are delivered. This should be the goal of any mayor today.

First, those all-housing apartment districts need to become real neighbourhoods -- and they lack the power or resources to do it on their own. It’s no coincidence that the highest rates of COVID-19 in virtually every major Canadian and U.S. city were located in apartment suburbs (for example, northern Etobicoke and western North York in Toronto; Surrey in Greater Vancouver). Their residents overwhelmingly rely on “essential” jobs that are located a long bus ride outside their cluster of apartment buildings, leaving them exposed to threats. Those districts need lot more shops and businesses and sidewalks and straight streets and transit stations -- things that won’t suddenly appear simply because some new entrepreneurial-minded people have moved in.

Second, there needs to be a lot more high-density housing in neighbourhoods that think they don’t want it -- for example, the absence of any apartment buildings in huge single-family-housing swaths of Toronto and Vancouver not only prevents much-needed housing supply increases, but leaves those neighbourhoods stagnant and unchanging, lacking enough people to justify the subway stations, mixed uses and busy sidewalks that allow Jacobs-style evolution to start taking place again.

Third, there needs to be a mass knocking-down of boundaries, both physical and psychological -- the barriers to human activity and community connection that slow and patient change won’t fix. But the worst of those boundaries are no longer found in the historic urban core; they’re planned and designed into the very shape of today’s most challenged neighbourhoods.

The sort of activist campaigns Ms. Jacobs waged in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and in the Annex in the 1960s and ‘70s need to be adopted by a whole new constituency who live not in dusty 19th-century neighbourhoods but in grassy, formerly visionary late 20th-century ones. There’s a difference, though: While the last century’s Jane Jacobs campaigned against the interventions of planners, this century’s successors need to be campaigning for them. No amount of local committee meetings will create easy foot traffic between poor and wealthy suburban blocks; simple protests won’t straighten the streets and fill the empty spaces with shops and more housing and bring employment into the centre of high-rise districts, even when it becomes legal to do so. The entire planning and development-approval process needs to be reoriented to serve the potential future residents of neighbourhoods, not their current ones.

Here we begin to see the missing chapters of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. That old story of the ever-evolving sidewalk hasn’t become obsolete -- it’s just that too many neighbourhoods lack the ingredients, including sidewalks themselves, that might allow that story to begin. To turn tomorrow’s neighbourhoods into living organisms, full of tight-knit vitality, is going to require more than bike paths. Mayors who want to make a Jacobs-scale difference today need to look beyond the pages of this 60-year-old book.

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Ken Armstrong/The Globe and Mail

On the future of cities

In the fall of 2020, The Globe and Mail ran a series exploring how the pandemic exposed problems in how cities are designed and run, and the things we can change about them in the coming decades. Here are some of the highlights.

Doug Saunders: How cities seize opportunity from the pandemic to change how they operate for the better

Alex Bozikovic: A proposal for ‘Canada’s street’ shows what is possible in a postpandemic world

Robin Wiebe: Will Canada’s pandemic-stricken urban centres survive?

Diana Lind: The pandemic is the perfect time to address our obsession with single-family homes

Eric Reguly: Bikes, pedestrians and the 15-minute city

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