Heritage Forum

Jane Jacobs for the 21st Century

Nov 3, 2016 | News


Two recent academic studies – the one still needs to be peer-reviewed – have tried to prove Jane Jacobs’ 1961 tenets on good city living. In her seminal book on urban planning, The Death and Life of the Great American City, Jacobs argued that four qualities need to be present in order for a city to be great: mixed land use (creating areas that serve more than one function and thus attract more than one type of person), small block sizes (they encourage pedestrian interaction), high density, and diverse architecture (different ages and forms of buildings accommodate tenets of varying economic statuses).


 Rigorous and polemical: Jacobs in Washington Square Park, New York, 1963. Photograph: Fred W McDarrah/Getty Images

Rigorous and polemical: Jacobs in Washington Square Park, New York, 1963. Photograph: Fred W McDarrah/Getty Images


Now a group of researchers in Italy have put this to the test, using mobile phone activity, census data and maps. The mobile activity represents ‘urban vitality’, while the size of city blocks and presence of ‘old’ buildings were dealt with in a more inventive way. An article discussing the report says: “They couldn’t really test block sizes, since most blocks in European cities are small, but they did find increased vitality at dense intersections, which they argued promoted the same kind of constant pedestrian activity that Jacobs attributed to small blocks. Likewise, they couldn’t really test the presence of old architecture, since old stuff is everywhere in Europe, but they could conclude that so-called “third places” that aren’t home or work — malls, parks, restaurants, bars, etc. — were important for neighborhood health.”

The researchers worked in six Italian cities, namely Bologna, Florence, Milan, Palermo, Rome and Turin.

In Milan, the residential, commercial and industrial areas are quite separate – something which came to the fore in the results, which showed that mixed land-use improves vitality.

The second study testing Jacob’s hypotheses was done in Seoul. It took more than a decade to collect all the necessary data but, in the end proved that the South Korean capital goes by Jacobs’ ‘rules’.

By using technology such as mobile data and even Internet maps and satellite photos, it should be possible to do quicker, cheaper studies with the same results, the Italians stated.


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