Jane Jacobs

by Chris Bertram on February 8, 2006

Over at 2 Blowhards, Michael Blowhard has “a nice piece about Jane Jacobs”:http://www.2blowhards.com/archives/002592.html . It was kind of hard to stop myself writing ‘about “the great” Jane Jacobs” in that last sentence”! There’s a useful set of links too. I’m kind of surprised by some of them. I know that Jacobs defies left–right categorization, but Jacobs as an unwitting reproducer of “Austrian” economics? That’s hard to square with her somewhat nutty views on import substitution. It illustrates something, though: that people are so taken with Jacobs’s brilliance in “The Death and Life …” that they really really want to believe that she simply must fit into their own worldview somehow. Usually, she doesn’t. She’s just too angular to fit neatly into anyone’s system or ideology.



John Emerson 02.08.06 at 7:15 am

Jacobs ideas of cities fit with Hayek’s ideas of self-organization. Self-organization can be found elsewhere, though.


Tom 02.08.06 at 8:26 am

Jacobs ideas of cities do not fit with Hayek’s ideas of self-organization.

In fact, of course, Jacobs ideas verify my worldview.

Seriously – just because she rails against city-planning-as-it-was (and is, to some extent), I do not think that she claims that diversity and good cities arise from simply avoiding planning all together.

And more seriously, “The Death and Life ..” is one of the most startling and impressive books I’ve ever read.


David Sucher 02.08.06 at 8:51 am

The idea that Jacobs is “anti-planning” could only come from someone who wants to believe it and moreover from someone who has not read “Death and Life…”

Jacobs is for “least intrusive means” planning but that is social planning nonetheless.


Daniel 02.08.06 at 9:57 am

yeh, this is a common problem of modern Hayekians; to assume that anybody whoever said anything about self-organisation is by that token a Hayekian and therefore an Austrian economist.


freddie 02.08.06 at 10:47 am

It is good to see that in the comments we all are in agreement.


Michael Schaefer 02.08.06 at 11:01 am

I’d say she spends nearly as much time in “The Death and Life…” warning of the perils of unrestrained development as she does complaining about wrongheaded city planning–there’s a whole section on successful areas homogenizing and losing their diversity precisely because developers rush in trying to all do the same thing.


Loren King 02.08.06 at 11:06 am

A modest corrective to those who poo-poo the idea that Jacobs is hostile to any and all planning (and this from someone who has dabbled in
Jacobs’ work): I don’t think the case is particularly clear either way.

I’d say that, in most of her writings, there is a serious scepticism with comprehensive planning (national, regional, metropolitan), and a hope that small units of self-government will weave themselves together in useful ways without much by way of overarching coordination.

Consider a pithy statement buried in the first half of Death and Life (p. 114): “our failures with city neighborhoods are, ultimately, failures in localized self-government. And our successes are successes at localized self-government. I am using self-government in
its broadest sense, meaning both informal and formal self-management of society.”

But then, of course, she immediately qualifies the point, suggesting that “the demands on self-government and techniques for it” will differ
(for instance, by scale and composition and history).

In The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations there are some very intriguing conjectures about cross-sector information externalities and self-sustaining urban regions (this is the weird ‘import substitution’ thesis that Chris mentions), as
well as strong criticisms of national economic policies that ignore certain historical trajectories of cities and their regions. And in
still later work, Jacobs was quite taken by the ideas of self-organization and complex adaptive systems.

As Chris hints, Jacobs has a habit of defying those who try to appropriate her ideas for various agendas: many communitarians and new urbanists suppose that Jacobs has provided a planning blueprint for better, more livable urban spaces. But then she goes and does something they don’t much like (endorsing unregulated, grey-market shuttlebus taxis, for instance).

To a philosopher and theorist, this defiance can be a bit frustrating,as it arises from various ambiguities and contraditions in her rich and
varied writings. But on the other hand, it’s fun to watch different intellectual and planning camps try to appropriate cool ideas, and then watch the originator of those ideas confound their efforts.


John Emerson 02.08.06 at 12:59 pm

I have read some of what Hayek wrote about self-organization, and it would have been of interest at the time even to someone who didn’t accept the rest of his ideas about laissez faire.


Timothy Burke 02.09.06 at 11:17 am

I think Loren gets it right: that Jacobs is suspicious of comprehensive or highly coordinated planning, or planning that originates from a singular orthodox assumption or perspective. I’ve always understood her as praising or valuing heterodox approaches to design, planning and management, not as saying, “Que sera, sera”, as saying we must never try to anticipate and manipulate cause-and-effect.

Jacobs is sort of what I’d like to be when I grow up, really.


joe o 02.09.06 at 1:37 pm

I wrote in Jane Jacobs name in that top 100 public intellectuals poll a while back. Even though everyone thinks she is great, I also think she is sometimes under-appreciated. Victor Davis Hanson got more write-in votes than she did.


Cranky Observer 02.09.06 at 5:11 pm

> her somewhat nutty views on import
> substitution.

In about 10 years, when there will be essentially no manufacturing left in the United States and our entire economy is running on loans from the PRC, I think we are going to find out exactly how “nutty” that theory is. The hard way, from the wrong end of the stick.



Peter 02.10.06 at 8:39 am

I am with Cranky on this one: our nation got rich from exports, and now we are busy spending that accumulated wealth as fast as ships can haul loot across the seas. And not even good loot. The poop one purchases in most big box stores can only last a couple seasons before it breaks, and is cheaper to discard than repair.


Gary Farber 02.10.06 at 3:28 pm

Thanks muchly for the pointer, Chris. I would have missed it, otherwise.

I linked here, with some of my own favorite quotes, and a few fleeting comments by me.

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