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Review of Great Streets by Allan B. Jacobs 2009/12/08

Posted by jennaelee in Uncategorized.

Great Streets by Allan B. Jacobs

1993 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Reviewed by Jenna E. Lee

In his book Great Streets, Allan Jacobs describes and analyzes the interaction between human activity and the built world, specifically streets.  Jacobs writes this book for designers, planners, and any decision maker who seeks to understand the many forces that come together to create a lively and pleasing urban streetscape.

Jacobs begins by asking the reader to consider what streets are ‘good for’ beyond their obvious utilitarian aspects, such as movement and access.  According to Jacobs, streets are for living, working, shopping, walking, driving, socializing, playing, and interacting—and the best streets have symbolic, ceremonial, social, and political significance as well. Jacobs explores these various roles streets play in everyday life—many of which seem obvious once pointed out, but are rarely actually contemplated by the average urban dweller.

Through Jacobs’ words and images, the reader visits more than a dozen streets located all around the world—some that are great streets today and some that were once great streets but have lost some critical quality over the years.  For each of these locations, Jacobs shares his own hand-sketches of the street with detailed dimensions, angles, and surroundings.  In the text accompanying each street, he describes the setting—what it looks like, who is present, what people are doing, if and where people are sitting, what the weather is like, how fast cars are moving, etc.  He also analyzes why each particular street is successful and how its characteristics might be transferrable to other streets around the world.

After vividly walking the reader through his chosen streets, Jacobs finishes the book with a chapter outlining the requirements a street must meet in order to be ‘great.’  A great street must be accessible; it must bring people together; it must be open to the public, livable, safe, and comfortable; it must invite participation; and it must demand responsibility (270).  Finally, Jacobs speaks of the “magic” a great street embodies—that intangible quality that some streets exude and that makes the street experience stirring and meaningful.

Jacobs’ book demonstrates to the reader the multidimensionality and complexity of street life.  While this subject matter would most likely seem tedious and dull if read in a standard journal article, Allen explores the topics in an artful and accessible manner.   Great Streets explains to the reader the physical, economic, and social elements that interact and merge to make streets seem vibrant and memorable.  And in doing so, Jacobs creates a vibrant and memorable volume—one worth revisiting.



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