A Phenomenological Reading of Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities

David Seamon explores urbanist Jane Jacobs as a phenomenologist, pointing to her understanding of neighborhoods a place-grounded choreography facilitated by interacting physical and human features and processes.

Though published almost sixty years ago, urbanist Jane Jacobs’ 1961 Death and Life of Great American Cities continues to grow in conceptual and pragmatic significance.1Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities,NY: Random House, 1961/1993; all page references refer to the 1993 “Modern Library” edition. One can safely say that this book—a remarkably perceptive picture of how cities work—is one of the great twentieth-century explications of urban life, and it continues to have profound theoretical and practical significance for urban policy, planning, design, and thinking.2See Robert Kanigel, Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2016, pp. 364–72; Laurence, Peter L., Becoming Jane Jacobs, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016. In the last decade, a productive interdisciplinary field of “Jacobsean” studies has developed, and many articles, books, and edited collections have been published that discuss Jacobs’ life and work.3 For overviews of “Jacobean” studies, see Roberta Brandes Gratz, The Battle for Gotham: New York in the Shadow of Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs, New York: Nation Books, 2010; Sonia Hirt and Diane Zahm, eds., The Urban Wisdom of Jane Jacobs, New York: Routledge, 2012; Kanigel, Eyes on the Street; Christopher Klemek, The Transatlantic Collapse of Urban Renewal Postwar Urbanism from New York to Berlin, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011; Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs; Max Page and Timothy Mennel, eds., Reconsidering Jane Jacobs,Washington, DC: APA Planners Press, 2011; Dirk Schubert, Contemporary Perspectives on Jane Jacobs: Reassessing the Impacts of an Urban Visionary, Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014. For discussions of the continuing applicability of Jacobs’ ideas for present-day architecture, planning, and urban design, see chapters in Hirt and Zahm, Urban Wisdom; and Schubert, Contemporary Perspectives.

Though she has never been associated with phenomenology, I argue in this commentary that, in terms of focus, method, and discoveries, Jacobs (1916–2006) can fairly be described as a phenomenologist of urban place. Conceptually, her work points toward a phenomenology of the city and urban lifeworld. Methodologically, she illustrates a manner of study whereby citiness reveals itself in the course of everyday, taken-for-granted life. Jacobs used firsthand urban observation as a starting point for identifying more general principles and structures that make cities what they essentially are—animated, flourishing places marked by exuberant street and sidewalk life. A city, she wrote, incorporates “an intricate living network of relationships… made up of an enormously rich variety of people and activities.”4Quoted in Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, p. 253.

Jane Jacobs at a 1968 protest against the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Jacobs’ “Phenomenological Method”

In Death and Life, Jacobs argued that mid-twentieth-century urban design and planning were undermining American cities because professionals understood the phenomenon of city not as it actually is but as those professionals wanted it to be—for example, Le Corbusier’s “towers in the park,” Louis Mumford’s network of new towns in the countryside, or Robert Moses’s mega-block urban renewal policies and massive highway construction. Urban practitioners and researchers have: 

ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities—anything but cities themselves.5 Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 9.

As a writer on urban issues in the early 1950s for the influential design magazine Architectural Forum, Jacobs felt more and more guilty about supporting urban-renewal projects that she realized, through firsthand site visits, were dramatic failures as livable places and communities. In 1959, as she was writing Death and Life, she described her growing frustration to landscape architect and friend Grady Clay:

I had a pervading uneasiness about the way the rebuilding of the city was going, augmented by some feeling of personal guilt, I suppose, or at least personal involvement. The reason for this was that in all sincerity I had been writing for Forum about how great various redevelopment plans were going to be. Then I began to see some of these things built. They weren’t delightful, they weren’t fine, and they were obviously never going to work right… I began to get this very uneasy feeling that what sounded logical in planning theory and what looked splendid on paper was not logical in real life at all, or at least in city real life, and not splendid at all when in use.6Quoted in Peter L. Laurence, The Unknown Jane Jacobs: Geographer, Propagandist, City Planning Idealist, in Max Page and Timothy Mennel, eds., Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, Washington, DC: APA Planners Press, 2011, p. 35; originally written March 3, 1959.

On one hand, therefore, Jacobs’ understanding of citiness developed through seeing firsthand the failure of post-war urban renewal. On the other hand, she was busy at work identifying and carefully observing successful urban neighborhoods and districts with vibrant, diverse street life—particularly her Greenwich Village neighborhood of Hudson Street. Philosopher Paul Kidder described her mode of inductive observation and interpretation as “the thick description of everyday, real-life urban experiences.”7Paul Kidder, The Urbanist Ethics of Jane Jacobs. Ethics, Policy and Environment, 11.3 (2008), p. 254. This method of discovery would eventually lead to her claim in Death and Life that her understanding of urbanity was grounded in what the city and urban experience actually are: a lived diversity of place that sustains personal and group identification and attachment. In a description of her method that could serve as instruction for urban phenomenology, she wrote:

The way to get at what goes on in the seemingly mysterious and perverse behavior of cities is, I think, to look closely, and with as little previous expectation as is possible, at the most ordinary scenes and events, and attempt to see what they mean and whether any threads of principle emerge among them.8 Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 19.

I shall mainly be writing about common, ordinary things: for instance, what kinds of city streets are safe and what kinds are not…. In short, I shall be writing about how cities work in real life because this is the only way to learn what principles of planning and what practices in rebuilding can promote social and economic vitality in cities.9 Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 5.

In every case, I have tried to test out what I saw or heard in one city or neighborhood against others, to find how relevant each city’s or each place’s lessons might be outside its own special case.10 Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 22.

This account of Jacobs’ real-world approach to urban research suggests a close parallel with two key features of phenomenological method: first, allowing the thing—in this case, citiness—to reveal itself in the course of everyday, taken-for-granted life, or the lifeworld as phenomenologists call it; second, using what one sees in the urban lifeworld as a starting point for understanding more general principles and structures that make the city what it essentially is, particularly its potential for propelling buoyant urban neighborhoods and streetscapes.11 Jacobs’ most extensive discussion of her method of seeing, understanding, and interpreting appears in Fred Lawrence, ed., Ethics in Making a Living: The Jane Jacobs Conference, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989, pp. 34–35; also see Jane Jacobs, Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, New York: Random House, 2016, pp. 317–19.

Jane Jacobs in front of her home in Toronto, Canada.

A Phenomenology of Urban Place

If Jacobs’ method of studying the city can be called implicitly phenomenological, one can also argue that Death and Life is an important contribution to a developing research focus that has come to be known as “place phenomenology.”12 On place phenomenology, see Edward S. Casey, Getting Back into Place, second edition, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009; Janet Donohoe, ed., Place and Phenomenology,New York: Roman & Littlefield, 2017; Bruce B. Janz, ed., Place, Space and Hermeneutics, Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017. Jeff E. Malpas, Place and Experience: A Philosophical Topography, second edition,London: Routledge, 2018; Robert Mugerauer, Robert, Interpretations on Behalf of Place, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994; Edward Relph, Place and Placelessness, London: Pion, 1976; David Seamon, Life Takes Place: Phenomenology, Lifeworlds, and Place Making, London: Routledge, 2018; Ingrid Leman Stefanovic, Safeguarding our Common Future, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000. This field of study contends that, as a concept grounded in human experience, place offers a way to portray the lived wholeness of people-in-world.  As a phenomenon always present in human life, place gathers worlds spatially and environmentally, marking out centers of human action, intention, and meaning that, in turn, make place. As phenomenological philosopher Edward Casey explained, “By virtue of its unencompassability by anything other than itself, place is at once the limit and the condition of all that exists… To be is to be in place.”13Casey, Getting Back into Place, pp.15–16. Or, as phenomenological philosopher Jeff Malpas wrote,

What we are a living, thinking, experiencing beings is inseparable from the places in which we live—our lives are saturated with places, and by the things and other persons intertwined with those places, thorough which we move, in which our actions are located, and with respect to which we orient and locate ourselves.14 Jeff E. Malpas, Comparing Topographies: Across Paths/Around Place: A Reply to Casey, Philosophy and Geography, 4.2 (2001), p. 231.

Place, specifically urban place, is Jacobs’ central concern in Death and Life. She recognized that robust urban neighborhoods simultaneously incorporate and shape an environmental fabric of taken-for-granted daily life. She demonstrated that these vibrant city neighborhoods and their lively street life are integral to urbanity and nourish unique urban places for which residents and other users feel environmental attachment and belonging.

Jacobs contended that the essential lived structure of robust urban places is a small-scaled functional and physical diversity that generates and is fed by what she called the street ballet—an exuberance of place and sidewalk life founded on the everyday comings and goings of many people carrying out their own ordinary needs, responsibilities, and activities. In turn, Jacobs identified four key environmental qualities that typically sustain flourishing street ballets: first, short blocks; second, a dense concentration of users; third, a range in building types; and, fourth, primary uses—i.e., anchor functions like residences and workplaces to which people must necessarily go. Primary uses are crucial to neighborhood vitality because the provide a regular, guaranteed pool of street and sidewalk users who provide much of the economic and social support for a neighborhood’s secondary uses—i.e., functions like eateries, cafes, and shops. In this regard, a neighborhood’s primary uses also contribute to a dense concentration of users, who patronize the secondary uses and provide different people on the streets at different times, day and night. 

Jacobs’ two other important features that support street ballet are short blocks and a range of building types. Short blocks are necessary because permeable, interconnected sidewalks and streets support intermingling pedestrian cross-use and offer users many more route choices than longer blocks, thus making traversals more convenient. Jacobs argued that neighborhoods should incorporate a close-grained mingling of buildings ranging in age and condition, including a good amount of smaller, older buildings for incubating new primary functions and risky, start-up secondary enterprises unable to afford high rent. As Jacobs wrote, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.”15 Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 245.

Greenwich Village, where Jacobs lived from the 1935 to 1968

These four conditions provide the physical and spatial foundation for a neighborhood dynamic that includes the willingness of neighborhood insiders and outsiders to assist and look out for each other—what Jacobs described as “eyes on the street.”16 Jacobs, Death and Life,p. 45. In the publisher prospectus she prepared for Death and Life, she described this place dynamic as a:

marvelously intricate, constantly adjusting network of people and their activities. This network makes all the unique and constructive contributions of the great city possible; it also makes possible the social controls that have to be effective on people, communities and enterprises within the big city if we are to maintain a high standard (or even a decent standard) of civilization.17 quoted in Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, p. 252.

In implicit phenomenological fashion, Jacobs recognized that urbanites and their urban environment are not separate but meld in a robust “being-in-the-world” grounded in place and its street ballet. More importantly, she came to see that this melding is founded on and contributes to the four physical and spatial elements of primary uses, short blocks, diversified buildings, and many people. Her understanding of successful urban neighborhoods points to a place-grounded choreography facilitated by a self-organizing, interactive nexus of physical and human features and processes.

Jacobs’ Street Ballet as Environmental Embodiment

From a phenomenological perspective, Jacobs’ street ballet is closely related to two important phenomenological concepts: the lived body and environmental embodiment.18 David Seamon, Merleau-Ponty, Lived Body, and Place: Toward a Phenomenology of Human Situatedness, in T. Hünefeldt and A. Schlitte, eds. Situatedness and Place (pp. 41–66), Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2018. The lived body refers to a bodily intentionality that automatically experiences, acts in, and is aware of the world that, typically, responds with supportive structure, pattern, and contextual presence. In turn, environmental embodiment identifies the various lived ways, sensorily and motility-wise, that the lived body engages and synchronizes with the world at hand, especially with its architectural and environmental elements and qualities. Both “lived body” and “environmental embodiment” relate to phenomenological philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s more general concept of body-subject—pre-reflective corporeal awareness expressed through action and typically in sync with and enmeshed in the physical world in which the action unfolds.19 Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, New York: Humanities Press, 1962 [originally 1945].

In Jacobs’ street ballet, a key theme is the tacit, taken-for-granted capacity of lived bodies to manifest in extended ways over time and space. How, in other words, do the routine, largely habitual actions and behaviors of individuals intermingling regularly in a space transform that space into a place with a unique dynamic and character—what I have termed elsewhere, after Jacobs, place ballet?20 David Seamon, A Geography of the Lifeworld,New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1979; David Seamon, Life Takes Place. A place ballet incorporates the interaction of individual bodily routines rooted in a particular environment, which often becomes an important place of interpersonal and communal exchange, meaning, and attachment, for example, a popular coffeehouse,21 M. J. Broadway and O. Engelhardt, Designing Places to be Alone or Together: A Look at Independently Owned Minneapolis Coffeehouses. Space and Culture, 22 (2019), pp. 1–18. a well-used city park,22 D. van Eck, and R. Pijpers, Encounters in Place Ballet: A Phenomenological Perspective on Older People’s Walking Routines in an Urban Park, Area, 49.2 (2016), pp. 166–173. a nondescript minibus-taxi rank,23 Bradley Rink, Place Ballet in a South African Minibus Taxi Rank, in D. Agbiboa, ed., Transport, Transgression and Politics in African Cities (pp. 81–98). New York: Routledge, 2019. or a bustling neighborhood sidewalk.24 Vikas Mehta, The Street, London: Routledge, 2013.

Jacobs’ understanding of the city in Death and Life provides a clearly delineated connection to urban design, planning, policy, and advocacy. To see the intimate linkages among diversity, street ballet, and the four shapeable conditions is to know what public officials and community activists can do to kindle and sustain urban diversity and place ballet—i.e., they must facilitate and strengthen the four conditions. As Jacobs explained: 

In our American cities, we need all kinds of diversity, intricately mingled in mutual support. We need this so city life can work decently and constructively, and so the people of cities can sustain (and further develop) their society and civilization…. [M]ost city diversity is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the formal framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop—insofar as public policy and action can do so—cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas and opportunities to flourish, along with the flourishing of the public enterprises. City districts will be economically and socially congenial places for diversity to generate itself and reach its best potential if the districts possess good mixtures of primary uses, frequent streets, a close-grained mingling of different ages in their buildings, and a high concentration of people.25 Jacobs, Death and Life, p. 315.

Demonstrators protest charges against Jane Jacobs in 1968. Then 51 years old, Jacobs was charged with inciting a riot at the protest against the proposed Lower Manhattan Expressway.

Jacobs as Practical Phenomenologist

Jacobs’ work can be associated with phenomenology because she brilliantly excavated the nature of citiness by realizing that urbanites and their urban worlds are always already present together experientially and existentially. She demonstrated that an integral dimension of those worlds is their physical aspects identified by the four manipulable conditions. These conditions intertwine among themselves and with the people who are in their midst, whether inhabitants or newcomers, insiders or outsiders. This intricate, dynamic web of people and place bolsters a lifeworld that sustains and is sustained by a robust street life and unique neighborhood ambience.

Just as important as her excavation of citiness is the affectionate understanding and hopeful possibilities that her excavation affords. Through understanding how citiness works, readers may become more willing to work for their city. Death and Life is a lucid example of how a more accurate knowledge of city life can facilitate a way of design and planning that make urban environments more fulfilling and vital. As Kidder explained, Jacobs offers “a kind of applied ethics that responds to issues uniquely connected with human place making and, specifically, with urban places.”26 Kidder, The Urban Ethics of Jane Jacobs, p. 254.

Jane Jacobs as chairperson of a Greenwich Village civic group at a 1961 press conference.

In a 1959 letter written as she was working on Death and Life, Jacobs recognized the radical new understanding of citiness that her effort might offer:

This book is neither a retelling in new form of things, already said, nor an expansion and enlargement of previously worked out basic ground, but it is an attempt to make what amounts to a different system of thought about the great city.27 Quoted in Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, p. 234; originally written July 23, 1959; italics added.

In this letter, she also explained that developing this “different system of thought” demanded a manner of understanding and presentation that was interconnected and holistic rather than disjoined and piecemeal. She wrote that “organization of this complexity without confusion is not like chopping off blocks of wood: there, that one’s done, now for next…. [T]he logic of every part is a portion of the logic of the whole, done in the light of the whole.”28 Quoted in Laurence, Becoming Jane Jacobs, p. 234; originally written July 23, 1959; italics added.

Grounded in her knowledge of what a vibrant city is, Jacobs’ “different system of thought” can fairly be described as an integrated urban phenomenology depicting urbanites and urban place intermeshed in a dynamic interdependence that is as much a real phenomenon as its separate human and environmental parts. Jacobs saw how all these parts work together to sustain or undermine urban place. She understood how, when working in mutual support, these many parts generate thriving urban neighborhoods, each unique as environments and places but all successful because of a generative, organized complexity that, in Death and Life, she decodes brilliantly.


Portions of this commentary are based on David Seamon, “A Jumping, Joyous Urban Jumble: Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities as a Phenomenology of Urban Place.” Journal of Space Syntax, 3.1 (2012), pp. 139–49.


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