Jane Jacobs “The Uses of City Neighborhoods”


Jane Jacobs’ passion was urban planning and creating city neighborhoods, where community lines were nonexistent. She has said that “Americans are poor at handling city neighborhoods” in that developers prefer to create self-contained areas reminiscent of “repetitious towns”. She argues that there is no place for nostalgia or a romanticized notion that city neighborhoods should reflect small town life with distinct geographical boundaries and homogenous groups of peoples. In fact, Jacobs states that “districts are handicapped by sameness” and that in actuality it is the blurred spatial lines and shared spaces in cities that give rise to tightly woven neighborhoods larger than their geographical lines.

While giving no more weight to one or another, Jacobs argues that there are three useful kinds of city neighborhoods to consider: 1) city as whole; 2) street neighborhoods; and 3) large subcity districts, where each augments the others. To accomplish this, planners must plan neighborhoods where the streets are a lively, spontaneous system of threads woven throughout the district. Include areas that incorporate cross-use areas such as parks, libraries and other public places that foster a sense of shared community rather than duplicating spaces for each area or building physical barriers that foster a Turf mentality. These characteristics organically create the identity of an effective district.

Relationships are also important for it to be effective. Possibly invoking the idea of a liberated community, Jacobs states that its important for districts to have people that create and maintain many varied sets of relationships from within and without of the district. Jacobs labeled these folks as “hop-skip people” as they know a person who knows a person that can do X or provide Y; in other words, resources are only a hop, skip and a jump away. These hop-and-skip relationships add density to the existing tightly woven neighborhood ties, ties that are important in building social capital that can sustain the effectiveness of the district.

However, when the continuity of these networks and ties are threatened, as in the case of urban revitalization and renewal planning, it can “mangle the tight skein“ of community relationships. Jacobs argues that revitalization efforts can displace the “real” people of the community that have grown and fostered the very neighborhood networks that have sustained it and can send city neighborhoods into a type of shock where the intricately woven fabric of society begins to fray, creating less effective districts.

At one point Jacobs discusses the fact that people invest years developing relationships and once severed can destroy a person as an ”effective social being”. Having just marked the 10-year anniversary, I think of all the displaced New Orleanians and the impact that the loss of relationships must have had on them. If anyone has any suggestions for literature on the issue please send my way.



One thought on “Jane Jacobs “The Uses of City Neighborhoods”

  • September 9, 2015 at 3:39 pm

    Good summary.
    Couple of notes:
    Jacobs is a well-known urban enthusiastic who discusses the possibilities that cities present to those who dwell within certain districts (diverse). She focuses on the networks, diversity and density of cities and how they could potentially positively impact laws, lives and spatial (built environment) areas within. She was a force in the theory of New Urbanism and advocated for smart growth, pedestrian walkable areas, mixed use of land/space but was not a fan of urban sprawl.
    She utilizes the example of Greenwich Village, which was slated to have a highway run down the middle due to funds provided by Federal Urban Renewal grants. She describes how utilizing all three government type styles Greenwich Village was saved. She calls areas without the above mentioned three self-governing mechanism islandlike and indicates these areas are more typically ethnic enclave that lack power to get things done as successfully as districts. Power is a very important part of her above mentioned success, which is not something all neighborhoods have along with the “hop-skip people” thus we have seen many primarily minority urban areas residents displaced during “urban renewal” due to their lack of power and social capital.
    Hurricane Katrina is a perfect example of what happens when neighborhoods don’t have power and social capital in regards to the rebuilding efforts.

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