The 4 Qualities of All Successful Cities

published Apr 13, 2015
We independently select these products—if you buy from one of our links, we may earn a commission. All prices were accurate at the time of publishing.
Post Image
(Image credit: nschouterden)

I studied architecture in college but somehow managed to avoid reading that seminal work of city planning, Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities. Until I moved to NYC, and a friend challenged me to read it for an impromptu book club, and I started taking Jane with me on the subway and suddenly the secrets of this great city, and of all great cities, were laid bare before my eyes.

Since moving to New York, I’ve made a lot of comparisons between it and my home city, Houston, which functions very differently, and have been drawn into a lot of conversations about gentrification and city planning and what makes a good city and how does one, in fact, even define what a good city is? All of which, I think, makes Jane more relevant than ever. Even though her book was published in 1961 and some of the things it describes, like children playing on the sidewalks of Manhattan’s West Village, may seem quaint to us now, her work was hugely influential in modern city planning, and still very relevant today.

In Death and Life, Jacobs defined a good city neighborhood as one that’s diverse — i.e., economically vibrant, with a large variety of businesses and establishments that appeal to a large variety of people. Such a neighborhood, Jacobs said, would “offer a fertile ground for the plans of thousands of people.” Critical of the methods of city planning that were then in vogue, she went about observing real-life neighborhoods that displayed the kind of diversity she described, and identified four qualities that all of these neighborhoods shared — qualities that planners would do well to emulate if they wanted to create successful cities. They are:

1. A mixture of primary uses.
A ‘primary use’ is something that draws someone to a particular neighborhood, independently of anything else. Businesses and homes are two of the most prominent examples, although a library or tourist attraction or even a particularly good market could also function as a primary use. Neighborhoods need mixtures of primary uses, Jacobs argued, to spread out foot traffic on the street throughout the day and support other businesses, like restaurants and bars and small shops, that depend on having a steady stream of customers all day long.

2. Short blocks.
Short blocks, with lots of corners, give people many different ways to get from one place to another, and many different opportunities to support interesting neighborhood businesses.

3. A mixture of buildings of different ages.
The importance of having a mixture of old and new buildings in a neighborhood was not, for Jacobs, an aesthetic one; instead, she argued that older buildings, which tend to have lower rents, were necessary for the survival of certain types of businesses which couldn’t afford the higher overheads of newer construction. Without these businesses, a fundamental part of city diversity would be lost.

4. Density.
Pretty self explanatory; especially in cities where walking is the primary mode of getting around, a certain amount of population density is required to support interesting businesses and restaurants.

You can see a lot of these principles reflected in the New Urbanism movement, especially the ideas of mixed uses and increased density. Jacobs’ observations were all based on neighborhoods where walking was the primary mode of getting around, which is not currently the case for the majority of American cities, but we’re currently seeing a movement back towards public transportation as many cities experiment with transit systems and less and less millennials buy cars. All of which makes Jacobs’ ideas more relevant than ever.

If you want to do a deeper dive, I would strongly suggest reading the whole book. Also, I’d love any suggestions for books or articles that discuss how these principles apply in a more modern setting — for example, how Jacobs’ ideas apply to cities where cars are the primary mode of transport, or how the internet and resources like Yelp affect the flow of people through neighborhoods and cities. Any ideas?