Looking Beyond the 'Sidewalk Ballet:' Jane Jacobs in the 21st Century

While The Death and Life of Great American Cities remains an urban planning classic, today's planners must contend with challenges that Jacobs couldn't have anticipated.

2 minute read

August 12, 2021, 8:00 AM PDT

By Diana Ionescu @aworkoffiction

Hells Kitchen Sidewalk New York City

ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock

Sixty years after its publication, Doug Saunders reevaluates Jane Jacobs' urbanist bible, 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." The book introduced the phrase "sidewalk ballet", the notion of "eyes on the street" as a deterrent for crime, and the importance of mixed use to vibrant, active neighborhoods.

But, Saunders argues, "[w]hile 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." Now, "[t]he biggest neighbourhood-level challenges facing mayors today involve challenges -- and parts of town -- that weren’t envisioned in her book." New conditions like "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."

Today, "the book’s core concepts are mainstream canon in urban-design schools and big-city planning departments," but "[t]he 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."

The flaw in continuing the Jacobs approach today, Saunders writes, is that "[i]f 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." Jacobs' "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."

Saturday, August 7, 2021 in The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

Aerial view of Eugene, Oregon at dusk with mountains in background.

Eugene Ends Parking Minimums

In a move that complies with a state law aimed at reducing transportation emissions, Eugene amended its parking rules to eliminate minimum requirements and set maximum parking lot sizes.

December 3, 2023 - NBC 16

Green Paris Texas city limit sign with population.

How Paris, Texas Became a ‘Unicorn’ for Rural Transit

A robust coalition of advocates in the town of 25,000 brought together the funding and resources to launch a popular bus service that some residents see as a mobility lifeline—and a social club.

November 30, 2023 - Texas Monthly

SMall backyard cottage ADU in San Diego, California.

San Diegans at Odds Over ‘Granny Towers’

A provision in the city’s ADU ordinance allows developers to build an essentially unlimited number of units on single-family lots.

November 29, 2023 - CALmatters

Silver and red Washington D.C. bus.

DC Launches 24/7 Bus Service

Starting December 17, 14 Metrobus routes will run around the clock to better serve essential workers and visitors.

27 minutes ago - Mass Transit

Aerial view of mobile home park with mature trees in Rochester, New York.

New York Strengthens Protections for Mobile Home Park Residents

Modular home owners will get the first right of refusal when park owners want to sell residential parks.

1 hour ago - Spectrum News

Aerial view of Palo Alto, California at sunrise.

Palo Alto Expands Church ‘Safe Parking’ Program

The city is considering adding commercial lots to the program, which provides safe parking and amenities for people living in cars.

December 6 - ABC 7 News

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

"Rethinking Commuter Rail" podcast & Intercity Bus E-News

Chaddick Institute at DePaul University

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.