Progressive Book Club
In the annals of urban design and city planning, no book holds a higher place than The Death and Life of Great American Cities by the great writer-activist Jane Jacobs. The 1961 work, a scorching indictment of the car-centric urban development that then dominated (Hello, Robert Moses), takes up a simple question: What makes cities work as places to live? What makes them vibrant, varied, enjoyable — livable? In crystalline prose that won her a readership far beyond specialists, and with many a colorful anecdote and example, Jacobs argued that the answer lay in a half-dozen or so key elements: mixed-use residential and commercial space — apartments, stores, coffee shops, dry cleaners, bars, and restaurants all in one block; mixed-income residents; smaller blocks; fewer cars; small parks in neighborhoods, not set off from them; and above all, population density — a lot of people in a relatively small space. Put it all together and you end up with something that looks a lot like Manhattan, and even more so Greenwich Village, which was in fact Jacobs’ model of a vibrant neighborhood.
The Death and Life of American Cities has long been a touchstone for urbanists. But it also works as a seminal environmental text. At least that’s what the New Yorker‘s David Owen argues, pretty convincingly, in his recent book Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About Sustainability. Owen’s crazy-till-you-think-about-it claim is that New York City is — by far — the greenest community in the United States. New Yorkers drive less, and walk and take public transit more, than people in any other city. They live on top of each other in smaller spaces that take less energy to heat. How come? Because New York, especially the island of Manhattan, forces them to be green. Population density is higher than anywhere else in the country. It’s hell to have a car, so many make do without; space between people and buildings isn’t really an option; residential and commercial development are mixed up, so people can often get where they need to go on foot. In other words, the very qualities that make New York City a model of urban vitality for Jacobs make it a model of green living — a model other cities ought to start emulating if we’re to stand a chance against climate change. So, for Owen, though Jacobs barely mentions “the environment” in her masterwork, The Death and Life of American Cities has more to teach us about sustainable development than any number of explicitly “green” books.
In this Progressive Book Club video Owen explains how Jacobs’ book influenced his own thinking, and why it’s more relevant today than ever.