The Death and Life of Great American Cities

The Death and Life of Great American Cities book cover by Jane JacobsJane Jacobs
The Death and Life of Great American Cities

New York: Random House. 1961.
Reviewed by Donald Goertz, Tyndale Seminary. September 2007.

One of the foundational premises which under girds our missional vision is the passage in Jeremiah 29:7, "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper." But, what does this mean? How do we understand the peace and prosperity of a city in rich and multifaceted ways? Here, I believe, Jane Jacobs has been a voice echoing many of the values of the Kingdom.

This summer I pulled out my copy of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and was amazed. Very few books which are as focused as this carry a freshness and relevance beyond a decade, let alone into whole new generations. Jane Jacobs has accomplished that with this book. Anyone who wants to understand how cities work needs to begin here. Her work has been the standard in the urban and community planning fields for good reason. Her analysis of older mixed neighbourhoods is wonderfully insightful. For those living in major Canadian urban centres, the book has a familiar ring. You will quickly realize how much her work has shaped our largely unrealized dreams, and how powerfully its premises have been proven where older neighbourhoods have been allowed to flourish.

Where the book really stood out for me was in her unpacking of the reasons why so much of the high density housing projects have been failures, even though they looked good on paper. There is a counter intuitive discipline/nature to building neighbourhoods. Parks, the flow of people and what makes a safe, vibrant community do not work they way most of us were taught to believe that they did. Jacobs understands the sociology of a healthy community, and this is of immense help to us as we strive to live out Jeremiah 29.

While Jacobs’ book is probably the most influential book for helping us rethink and engage our place in the city, its weakness lies in its almost exclusive focus on neighbourhoods. There is very little reflection on how all of the parts come together to make a city. We need to engage our communities, but how all of the pieces fit together in a vibrant, healthy whole is a growing issue in Canada.

Before you move on to the standard texts in urban ministry, read Jacobs. She writes in a clear, vibrant and very personal style. While the book is certainly dated and the discipline has certainly advanced, this is the foundational work. If you are involved in urban ministry this is a must read.