***Originally posted April 6, 2010***
Jane Jacobs wrote a book in 1961 called the Death and Life of Great American Cities. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jane_Jacobs#The_Death_and_Life_of_Great_American_Cities) Despite having been written 50 years ago, the ideas Jacobs wrote about are applicable today, as her observations of successful and unseccussful urban areas are still visible in any city.
Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, on the other hand, the book can be a bit repetitive at times, so I'd like to bring a brief summation of the major points to the table. This is a list of factors that contribute to successful urban life: 1) mixed-use commercial and residential buildings 2) vibrant sidewalk life 3) abundancy of streets 4) co-mingling of old and new buildings.
1) Urban dwellings should be mixed with businesses, as people should be within walking distance of places to spend money. Consumerism is vital to our economy, so make it easy for people to buy things.
2) The excitement of city life is often embodied in the busyness of people on the sidewalk. People buzzing around provides commerce to businesses lining the streets, but also an important and subtle amount of socialization takes place: getting to know your neighbors.
3) Pedestrian activity is vital to the life of sidewalks, which is virtually eliminated when there's nowhere to walk to. An abundance of streets in a small area creates a webbed network allowing for multiple ways to traverse the grid and potential places to put up storefronts.
4) What helps to maintain diversity of residential and commercial tennants is diversity of cost of where they can be located. Age of a building is often inversely proportional to the cost of occupying it, and variety is maintained by offering spaces that appeal to different contingencies.
Compare the cities you've been to and observe what made one city or neighborhood more successful than another. Did these factors have anything to do with it?