COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space

Allan Jacobs

Dec 31, 2008
Dec 14, 2017

Allan Jacobs has observed and measured scores of famous urban streets and boulevards, in order to discover what makes great public streets. His valuable book, Great Streets (1995), helps to analyze and quantify the visceral reaction reaction of wonder and pleasure that tourists experience when confronted with places like the Champs Elysee or the Passeig de Gracia in Barcelona. A professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Jacobs uses observation as a tool for researching the design of the public realm - streets, spaces, and parks.


Jacobs has been a member of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California at Berkeley since 1975. In addition to teaching a variety of studios and courses in city planning and urban design during his tenure at Berkeley, Jacobs has participated in a wide range of professional planning activities. He has served as a consultant in city planning and urban design to Curitiba, Brazil; Berkeley; the Los Angeles Redevelopment Authority; Portland; and many other cities.

Jacobs is widely known for his publications and research in the field of urban design, including such books as Great Streets, Looking at Cities, and Making City Planning Work. Jacobs has been a regular contributor to Places magazine, and has also been a regular participant and resource team member for the Mayors Institute of City Design.

Prior to his tenure at Berkeley, Jacobs served as Director of Planning for the City of San Francisco from 1967-1975. As Director of Planning, Jacobs developed a new comprehensive plan for the city, emphasizing public access to the San Francisco waterfront, design guidelines for downtown development, and revitalization of neighborhood design throughout San Francisco.

Jacobs holds a Bachelor of Architecture cum laude from Miami University, and a Master of City Planning from the University of Pennsylvania. He attended the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and was a Fulbright Scholar in City Planning at University College London. He has won a number of honors and awards, including the AIA Excellence in Education Award, California Chapter, 1994; Resident in Architecture, American Academy in Rome, 1996; and a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1982.


Designing Great Streets.  In Great Streets, Jacobs analyzes the qualities of great streets around the world: buildings of similar height, interesting facades, trees, windows that invite viewing, intersections, beginnings and endings, stopping places and space for leisurely walking. By studying great streets in extreme detail, he has identified these factors as necessary for transforming streets into better public realms. At the same time, however, Jacobs warns that even with these features, great streets are ultimately shaped through the "magic of design."

Multiway Boulevards as Urban Saviors. Throughout his work, Jacobs explains, defends, and celebrates multiway boulevards - great tree-lined streets with separate realms for through traffic and for slow-paced vehicular-pedestrian movement. He argues that boulevards could play an important role in addressing blight by bringing people back into the same places as other traffic. Although such streets are currently unpopular because of safety and traffic concerns, Jacob argues that boulevards can respond positively to many issues central to urban life such as livability, mobility, safety, interest, economic opportunity, mass transit, and open space.

Utilizing the Power of Observation. While most modern street planning is based on traffic assumptions and place speculation, direct observation is the foundation of Jacobs' research. He encourages planners and designers to study what does and does not work on existing streets, and to use these observations and examples for better street design.

Fostering Interaction between Pedestrians and Cars. Contrary to traditional planning assumptions, Jacobs believes that the segregation of cars and pedestrians decreases safety and community vitality. Based on field research and observation, he demonstrates that intersections and streets that allow every type of movement and interaction between pedestrians and drivers work best, serving as attractive, welcoming, and exciting places that help build the local community. According to Jacobs' findings, when cars are more fully aware of and integrated into the pedestrian realm, both pedestrians and drivers are safer.


"Streets moderate the form and structure and comfort of urban communities."

"Streets are places of social and commercial encounter and exchange. They are where you meet people - which is a basic reason to have cities in any case."

"As well as to see, the street is a place to be seen. Sociability is a large part of why cities exist and streets are a major if not the only public place for that sociability to develop. At the same time, the street is a place to be alone, to be private, to wonder what it was once like, or what it could be like. It is a place for the mind to wander, triggered by something there on the street or by something internal, more personal, a place to walk while whatever is inside unfolds, yet again."

"It's no big mystery. The best streets are comfortable to walk along with leisure and safety. They are streets for both pedestrians and drivers. They have definition, a sense of enclosure with their buildings; distinct ends and beginnings, usually with trees. Trees, while not required, can do more than anything else and provide the biggest bang for the buck if you do them right. The key point again, is great streets are where pedestrians and drivers get along together."

"For at least 60 years, city engineers have been anti-urban, anti-pedestrian and anti-mixed use. As a philosophy, they moved to segregate uses and then they moved to segregate people and cars under the guise of safety, with an emphasis on size -- wider, larger -- and this is anti-pedestrian. Existing standards are not even based on research, they're mostly based on queuing problems. We're told by traffic engineers that intersections where pedestrians and drivers get along together are dangerous, mostly because of the multiple turning points and complex interactions required. But this is the exact opposite of what real research and observation of existing great intersections tell us."

"Great streets have 9- to 10-foot lanes and 7- to 8-foot parking maximum, if they have parking. Though present more than not, parking in great amounts is not a characteristic of great streets. At great intersections we've found that every movement is often possible."

"The reason great intersections work is because of the creation of a pedestrian realm where the cars know this. When streets become unsafe, it is almost always when the pedestrian realm does not exist."

"Most of the great intersections and streets I've observed could not be built today. But based on real accident records, they are not more dangerous than currently 'normally designed' streets and intersections -- and have similar if not higher throughput."

"There have been times when streets were a primary focus of city building -- streets rather than individual buildings."

"If we can develop and design streets so that they are wonderful, fulfilling places to be -- community-building places, attractive for all people -- then we will have successfully designed about one-third of the city directly and will have had an immense impact on the rest."


"Jacobs rightly believes that good cities are made of good streets and that we're rapidly losing our talent for creating them." - Robert Campbell, Boston Globe

"As director of the City Planning Commission of San Francisco, Allan Jacobs pioneered the integration of urban design into local government planning, producing a plan that has given San Francisco some of its best places and, two decades later, still stands as a model of its kind. His book, Making City Planning Work, is a telling and accessible account of what it takes to change American cities for the better by taking cues from a careful observation, a theme he further developed in Looking at Cities. Great Streets is a text that has become widely revered and is used universally by students and practitioners. It has had an extraordinary influence on city design providing lucid examples and realizable principles about the making of public space." - Committee for the 1999 Kevin Lynch Award

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COVID-19: The Recovery will Happen in Public Space