top of page
  • Writer's pictureMaria Eduarda Ardinghi Brollo

A look at Jane Jacobs' urbanism in times of (in)sustainable cities

Author: Maria Eduarda Ardinghi Brollo

Translated by: Henrique de Jesus dos Santos

“For them, the street was just a row of pavements on which people walked around the town. Now, the street is more than that, the street is a factor in the life of cities, the street has a soul!... (Rio, João do, 1908, p. 2)”.


As a central theme of sustainability studies, the discussion about the so-called resilient and sustainable cities is complex and diverse. The eleventh Sustainable Development Goal (“Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”) of the United Nations’ 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development lists 11 subtopics related to this goal, and curiously, none of them even mentions the word “street”. And why should it?

Since 1961 (that is, long before we even thought about the intertwining of environmental sustainability and urban quality of life), with the publication of the first edition of "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" by activist Jane Jacobs, streets and pavements have been seen as determining factors in urban quality of life.

In fact, the author rightly points out that the tradition of orthodox urban planning (which generates a series of problems that we deal with, such as the lack of security or quality housing) is born out of a denial of the street as the most basic nature of big cities – which today are the environment where the majority of the global population lives.

The impact of industrialisation on the sudden growth of the world’s metropolises has turned the city into a “chaotic” space. It is this “chaos” that planners avoid and seek to mitigate that, above all, constitutes the identity of urban space. The big cities that Jacobs deals with (such as New York, Chicago or Baltimore) are thus not merely a populous translation of life in small towns and suburbs.

The Garden City, as one of the three great pioneering theories of orthodox urbanist thinking, was planned by Ebenezer Howard in 1898 in Germany and translated by many as Lewis Mumford in the United States in the 1920s, and aimed to break down the density of urban space in order to make nature the main element of the city. From the perspective of the Garden City, urban space only works if it is delimited for a number of people and must above all favour the rescue of the aesthetics of nature in its “pure” state. In this sense, Jacobs observes:

Howard and Geddes’ ideas were enthusiastically adopted in the United States during the 1920s and expanded by a group of extremely efficient and dedicated people, among them Lewis Mumford, Clarence Stein, the late Henry Wright and Catherine Bauer. Although they defined themselves as regional planners, more recently Catherine Bauer named this group the “decentralisers”, a more accurate name, once the immediate result of regional planning, according to their vision, should be to decentralise the big cities, shrink them, and disperse businesses and the population into smaller, separate towns. (JACOBS, 2011, p. 24)

Similarly, the City Beautiful proposal put forward at the Columbiam Exposition of Chicago in 1893 and Le Corbusier's utopian Ville-Radieuse in 1930 also violate the socio-economic viability and health of an urban or metropolitan space. City Beautiful, as well as the Garden City, prioritised planning based on "anti-chaotic" aesthetics, drawing on the tradition of Western aesthetic and logical-rational thought of "thoughtfulness in forms". The City Beautiful opted for the encapsulation of social interaction in great architectural works such as public buildings and Civic Centres, built with influences from boulevard architecture and references to the opulent buildings of Classical Antiquity and the Baroque period.

In a different aesthetic position, Le Corbusier’s plan embraced verticalisation, but did not differ from the Garden City and City Beautiful in its denial of pavements and streets. For this French architect, the population would be organised in tall buildings that would optimise the use of the land and be surrounded radially by parks and nature, so that pedestrian circulation would be reserved for these spaces. As for the circulation of vehicles, the aim was to move them underground and to expressways and vertical roads without junctions. The Ville Radieuse, however, had not only an architectural purpose, but also a social one:

Le Corbusier was not only planning a physical environment; he was also designing a social utopia. Le Corbusier’s utopia was a condition of what he called maximum individual freedom, by which he apparently meant not the freedom to do anything, but freedom from everyday responsibility. In his Ville Radieuse, supposedly no one would be obliged to provide for their brother anymore. No-one would have to worry about their own plans. No-one should be restricted (ibid., p.25).

It is at this point that Jacobs demonstrates that the decisive proposals about urban planning that have built orthodox urban thinking are flawed because they elevate socio-organisational values that are foreign to the everyday lifestyle of big cities.

In the same way , the logic of the flow of capital and real estate speculation follows this principle: based on what is proposed by the “Beautiful Radieuse Garden City” organisation, banks, construction companies and real estate agents invest in the revitalisation of neighbourhoods considered “chaotic”, “poorly planned”, expelling, as a rule, the low-income population present there, and attracting new middle- and high-income residents who come to live under the architectural and urban rules of orthodox thinking.

This plexus of values, by excluding and fighting against the essential nature of cities, is doomed to failure, allowing an increase in the lack of security that is so prevalent in urban societies, the new group of residents in the revitalised neighbourhood only live there for a short time and abandon it because of “crime in the streets”. As a result, the investment loses its return and the private sector looks for a new neighbourhood to revitalise. Meanwhile, the government adapts the now revitalised and abandoned “dangerous” neighbourhood to accommodate lower-income populations once again, creating housing estates that are also built on the logic of the “Beautiful Radieuse Garden City”. The neighbourhood thus closes the cycle that led it to fail from a social and housing point of view.

The investment in revitalisations makes it seem as if capital has not been used to improve urban space, which Jacobs says is almost a myth: “There is a nostalgic myth that it would be enough if we had enough money” (Jacobs, 2011, p. 14). The real issue is that this capital is so poorly applied by private investors and, above all, by public authorities that it undermines the very possibility of profitability for spaces and ends up, like cars, contributing to the terrible quality of life that some neighbourhoods and cities offer.

Faced with the acknowledgement that the orthodox urban thinking is inadequate for the rapid planning of urban spaces, Jane Jacobs goes on to propose solutions based on observations of successful experiences. It is from this kaleidoscope of experiences that the author pinpoints the catalysing point for urban planning:

Underneath the apparent disorder of the traditional city, there is, in the places where it works well, a surprising order that guarantees the maintenance of security and freedom. It’s a complex order. Its essence is the complexity of the use of pavements, which brings with it a permanent succession of eyes. This order is made up of movement and change, and although it is life, not art, we can call it, in fantasy, the artistic form of the city and compare it to dance – not a mechanical dance, with the extras lifting their legs at the same time, twirling in sync, bowing together, but a complex ballet, in which each individual and the groups all have different roles, which miraculously reinforce each other and make up an ordered whole. The ballet of the good urban pavement is never repeated anywhere else, and everywhere it is always full of new improvisations. (Ibidem, p.22)


Despite what the author proposed in the 1960s, late industrialisation in many countries of the Global South and new forms of globalisation are still provided for by the Western, aesthetic and logical-rational urban planning of the “Beautiful Radieuse Garden City.” Even more aggravatingly, current theories on the application of technologies in urban environments, those that relate to the production of Sustainable Development through more resilient urban spaces, not only conform to orthodox (anachronistic) urban planning thinking, but end up reinforcing it, in a “apples for oranges” exchange between technology and sustainability.

It is therefore understood that urban planning, in the past but especially in the present, should always use its tools to promote a space that is functional for structuring social and environmental relations, which is the best way to promote the permanence of an organised, organic, sensitive and hence intelligent space that is interesting for private investment, the public interest and sustainable use by the urban population that protects it and should be protected by it.




JACOBS, Jane. Morte e Vida das Grandes Cidades. 3. ed. São Paulo: WMF Martins Fontes, 2011.


OBJDIGITAL.BN.BR/A alma encantadora das ruas. Disponível em: Acesso em: 8 de maio de 2020


ORGANIZAÇÃO DAS NAÇÕES UNIDAS. Agenda 2030 para o Desenvolvimento

Sustentável. Disponível em: < agenda2030/>.

Acesso em: 13 de março de 2022.


LEFEBVRE, Henri. O Direito à Cidade. Tradução Rubens Eduardo Frias. São

Paulo: Centauro, 2001.


GEHL, Jan. Cidades para Pessoas. Tradução Anita Di Marco. 2. Ed. São Paulo:

Perspecitva, 2013.

5 views0 comments


bottom of page