Book Review: Great Streets

Jacobs, Allan B. Great Streets. MIT Press. 1995.

This book has been sitting on my shelf for a while, & I finally got around to reading it. Great Streets is considered by many in urban planning circles to be a landmark book, one that challenged the predominant method of building streets in the US. And it is, I guess, but new technologies and resources have left the much of the book terribly antiquated.
Jacobs states that he wanted to create a reference book of sorts, a book that cataloged some of the world’s greatest streets, including building heights, sidewalk widths, roadway dimensions, etc. The book is organized into four parts, and parts two and three are composed entirely of page after page of graphical right-of-way summaries and street pattern renderings. The renderings & graphics, however, are not beautiful, full-color photos, but rather disappointing monochrome pencil sketches. In 1995, perhaps this was groundbreaking and useful, but in 2009, the reference sections of Great Streets provide very little that hasn’t been surpassed by several free online mapping utilities.
However, in parts one and four, Jacobs provides timeless commentary about several different categories of streets, the various purposes they serve, the elements that make streets great, and how they can be used as examples to inform future roadway projects. One of his primary arguments is that public rights-of-way should be designed for people, not simply automobiles. He describes many of the qualities that are common among several of the streets he profiles.
So how did Minneapolis/Saint Paul fare in Jacobs’ evaluation? Sadly, we received only a passing mention. While describing several Great Residential Boulevards he states, “The various parkways that connect the lakes and that are part of the park system of Minneapolis are such streets…” He’s right, we’ve got some great parkways.
The best quote from the book comes while he is discussing how natural elements like rivers or topography has historically guided the development of urban patterns (emphasis added):

Freeways and expressways are often like rivers or waterfronts in this regard. They either break patterns or come where there were already patern changes, in the no-man’s lands that sometimes exist where two patterns join. San Francisco’s Central Freeway and Embarcadero Freeway were examples. Freeways also come at points of major topographic change. None of which explains the freeway in central Boston, an exercise in human perversity.

HA! Right again!
Also, I write really awful book reviews. I’m glad nobody reviews my book reviews.

1 comment to Book Review: Great Streets

  • salome

    I read your review, I needed to knoe about this book, great streets, and the review was not that bad :D, thank u