Fifty years ago, our cities were being ravaged and destroyed. Jane Jacobs blew the whistle. Now, history is repeating itself—on an epic scale. A Matter of Death and Life is a film about cities though the lens of Jane Jacobs.
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) had no formal training as an urban planner and not even a college degree, and yet, with her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the woman often called a “genius of common sense” changed cities and the way we think about them forever, persuading generations of people to take a second look at their urban surroundings and to take action against previously unquestioned authority.
With the opening words in The Death and Life of Great American Cities—“This book is an attack on current methods of city planning and rebuilding”—Jacobs commenced a jeremiad against what were then universally accepted ideas about how to improve urban areas. At the time Jacobs was writing, planners’ favored tools were the aerial photograph and the wrecking ball. Nearly everyone was in thrall to the Utopian concepts of the modernist god, Le Corbusier, whose plan for leveling the cities of the past and starting with a perfectly-ordered clean slate was espoused by most governments, planners, and architects worldwide. Those charged with fixing our cities were carelessly obliterating sometimes blighted but typically vibrant neighborhoods, replacing them with ordered banality in the name of a social-engineering concept known as urban renewal.
Jacobs saw that this top-down, often brutal, one-size-fits-all approach to city planning was obliterating life on the street and, along with it, the delicate, complex organic social and economic networks that allow cities to thrive. She was among the first to understand that urban infrastructure, while of great importance, was absolutely secondary to the complex self-organizing web of human connectivity that creates unique places in urban settings. The misguided imperative for order was destroying the sections of the cities that often worked best, often replacing them with aesthetically pleasing, yet deeply flawed faux solutions. “When we deal with cities, we are dealing with life at its most complex and intense,” she wrote in Death and Life. “Because this is so, there is a basic aesthetic limitation on what can be done with cities: A city cannot be a work of art.”
As massively scaled housing projects, highway networks, and suburban tracts were being built, and as people were being factored out of the urban equation, Jacobs excoriated the unchecked power of the planners. She drew the world’s attention to the ground-level vibrancy of urban cores—what Jacobs famously called “the ballet of the sidewalks”—and showed that a city’s success cannot be planned or controlled by some central authority, but that rather it must grow from the common experiences of its inhabitants. At the time Jacobs was reporting and writing Death and Life, Robert Moses, New York’s master builder, was the personification of central authority in city planning. Jacobs’s point of view—and much of her grass-roots activism in the 1950s and 1960s—was in opposition to the methods, theories, and practices of Moses and his cohorts in other cities, and she helped to precipitate their downfall.
Jacobs’s case for the “bottom up” city, where trust and power are vested in the people, was a particularly shocking proposal in the mid-20th century, when the belief in command-and-control-style central planning and social-engineering projects was ironclad. Her book turned the urban-planning establishment on its head so thoroughly that today it’s hard to believe how revolutionary her ideas were at the time.
Today, the lessons of Death and Life have become mainstream, but the reality of city building hardly takes Jacobsian theory into adequate consideration. This must change if old and new cities are to thrive. The Indian architect and urban planner, Charles Correa, has said, “Jane Jacobs was invaluable in correcting the disastrous course in which we were seemingly embedded—and which might still overwhelm us. We are really on the wrong track. She was a watershed moment, and we need another one.” While Corbusian top-down planning, which Jacobs reacted against, has been widely discredited, this film will reveal that, in the rapidly developing and urbanizing world, Le Corbusier’s influence is still very much alive, and there has been a nearly universal embrace of his prescriptions for the modern city and top-down planning methods. As countries such as China and India grapple with the challenges of mass urbanization, they are building mega-cities by the score and at an unprecedented pace. Those nations have had one model to serve as an example for how to build their new cities: the United States in the post-war period. Their scaled-up mimicking of the American Century’s car-centered, superhighway-girded, tower-in-the-park urbanism is today producing similarly disastrous results around the world, but the scope and scale mean that any future reckoning will be even more severe. Newly minted cities for millions are being built from scratch, all tailored to the motor vehicle, with scarce consideration for the key elements that make them truly livable. While there are some surviving parts of old cities which serve their populations well because they were largely planned from the bottom up, this film will reveal that these “organic cities” are not just endangered but are being systematically destroyed.
Our film will show that this is a worldwide epidemic all over the world, from the instant magacities of China to the rapidly expanding urban areas of India and Africa to South America’s exploding urban cores. The consequences are dire. Much like the destruction of the rain forest, as each square mile of organic city is destroyed, our world becomes less sustainable, less livable and less humane. While the cause of saving the rain forest is now very much in the popular consciousness, the topic of the organic (sometimes called “informal” or “user-generated”) city is not. In 1961, Jacobs made a brilliant case for the triumph of the informal city and its superiority to the over-planned modern metropolis. Today, at this crucial moment, it is imperative that we again make the case for the organic city. We need to revisit Jacobs’s ideas. The grave mistakes of the mid-20th century must not be repeated around the world as we face urbanization on a hitherto, unimaginable scale. While the problems we now face in the urbanizing world are far different in scope from anything Jacobs encountered in her time, her ideas have proved incredibly prescient and contain many potential answers for addressing the dizzyingly complex problems of cities today. If we build our urban areas with sensitivity and don’t destroy what is organically great about them, we can move toward solving many pressing global issues. As Jacobs wrote: “Cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves.”
This film is an attack, just as Jacobs’s book was an attack, exposing today’s planning methods as The Death and Life of Great American Cities did more than 50 years ago. It will revive Jacobs’s voice at a time when it most needs to be heard, and take the case for “the city of the people” a necessary step further.