City Limits

Is it time to rethink our view of Jane Jacobs as a visionary?
Jacobs’s pro-business, anti-government leanings in Systems of Survival are by no means exceptions. Her protagonists are almost always plucky entrepreneurs—usually small, locally oriented, and socially conscious, but always for profit. Where public actors appear, they are usually the villains, centralizing power, decking the halls with red tape, and investing in useless boondoggles. Unlike the entrepreneurs, who are often identified in endnotes as Jacobs’s friends or friends of friends, the public officials are nameless bureaucrats, who are at best misguided people with good intentions, at worst imperious megalomaniacs who undermine freedom, thwart innovation, and muffle diversity.

The Nature of Economies, a slim book featuring most of the same themes as Systems of Survival, is not what one might expect from a title that suggests both the environment and economics. It is neither a small-is-beautiful-style denunciation of growth nor an economic analysis of environmental problems. Instead, it is a broad-strokes, surprisingly cheery discussion of how ecological principles can help improve economies. The Nature of Economies does not promote a specific form of “green economics,” but is rather a description of ecologically dictated realities that economists would do well to acknowledge.

Ecology leads Jacobs to redefine economic development not as quantitative growth, but as qualitative change. Economies develop by becoming more complex and diversified. This insight cuts against what Jacobs sees as the orthodox economist’s view: that economies should specialize in what they do best. Jacobs’s economic development strategy is not really a strategy at all, but rather a way of hedging bets. Because diversification is good, because the future of complex systems like economies and ecosystems is nearly impossible to predict, governments and businesses should avoid putting all their development eggs in one basket. Economic futures should be shaped not by centralized policy-making but by scores of innovating private enterprises. Jacobs’s picture of the economy is akin to the best mixed-use neighbourhoods: manageable, human scale, replete with variety, and run by people you know and trust. The book, published in 2000, does not address outsourcing, and for all its dutiful emphasis on interdependence and interconnectedness, The Nature of Economies proceeds almost as if economies existed in isolation from global competition and the extraordinary wealth inequality that shapes economic patterns everywhere.

The optimism driving The Nature of Economies appears to screech to a halt with Jacobs’s final book, published four years later. Dark Age Ahead is a warning of North America’s cultural decline. Jacobs sees the harbingers of a dark age in the decay of five crucial institutions. Family and community are being destroyed by unaffordable housing, suburbanization, and car culture. Higher learning is being replaced by “credentialing,” driven by what Jacobs sees as our culture’s unhealthy obsession with jobs. Science is being abandoned for pseudo-science. Taxation is being “dumbed down,” with the governments collecting taxes being too far removed from the people they serve. Professional self-policing seems increasingly incapable of catching corrupt behaviour, as evidenced by the corporate scandals of Enron and Arthur Andersen.

Unfortunately, Dark Age Ahead is long on assertions and short on reasoning. One of the joys of Jacobs’s earlier works is the way she supports her arguments with fresh and variegated examples. In Dark Age Ahead, her evidence is scant and consists largely of hobby horses: centralization, sprawl, the planning failures of traffic engineers, economists’ fixation on exports, the New York City expressway schemes of infamous planner Robert Moses. All this suggests a troubling trend in Jacobs’s writings: the more ambitious her subject, the less thoroughly she seems to support her arguments.

Despite these shortcomings, Dark Age Ahead received surprisingly few negative reviews. And this lack of critical response to Jacobs’s writing was not atypical. “Among Canadians who know her work,” writes Alice Sparberg Alexiou in a recent biography, “Jane Jacobs is immune to criticism.” What has kept the critics quiet? Some of it may be good old Canadian deference—respect for one’s elders, especially if they are our own. Some of it may be part of a tradition of criticizing gingerly within Canada’s literary and intellectual class. But at least as much of Jacobs’s success at evading criticism must be attributed to the woman herself and to the public persona she cultivated since arriving in Canada in 1968.

Backed by her own lack of formal training (she left Columbia University after two years of undergraduate study) and her grandmotherly demeanour, she cast herself as an underdog in a world of credentialed experts—be they economists, traffic engineers, civil servants, or professors—and her attacks on them could be unrelenting. Like a populist politician, she cast her opponents as out of touch with reality, ignorant of plain facts, and dismissive of regular folks. She evoked a pleasant nostalgia, both through her words, which were more about restoration than revolution, and through what she as a public figure represented: the possibility that an untrained polymath whose laboratory is the world around her and whose tools are her eyes, ears, and com-mon sense can still, in this specialized age, advance ideas that will change the world.

Through these traits, Jacobs cultivated a large and intensely loyal following, including politicians of every stripe (Prime Minster Harper recently said he has been inspired by her environmental ideas). To criticize Jacobs, then, is on some level to incur that following’s wrath. Because of who Jacobs was, criticism also opens one up to charges of snobbery, of bullying, and of orthodoxy. Easier, perhaps, just to say nothing.

The popularity of Jacobs’s ideas also helped her score major political victories in Canada—triumphs of far greater scope than the expressway stop-pages she helped secure in Greenwich Village and Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood in the 1960s and 1970s. The Toronto mayoral candidate she backed in 2003, David Miller, was recently rewarded with a second term. The “cities agenda” of granting more resources to municipalities, which Jacobs vigorously advocated, has become a head-line issue over the past half-decade and is a concrete realization of Jacobs’s lifelong effort to push political effort toward the local level. And anyone writing on urban affairs in this country, whether policy-maker, journalist, or academic, would be hard-pressed not to cite Jacobs’s ideas.

Considering these victories, it may be worth remembering Jane Jacobs in a different light. Jacobs was the author of one great book and several other books that, despite tackling increasingly ambitious topics, are unlikely to have any lasting impact. While it may have been right to follow Jacobs’s ideas in designing city blocks, it would be unwise to take her advice on separatism, economics, ethics, and the decline of civilization. But to judge Jacobs’s impact based on ideas alone would overlook her considerable political acumen—the subtle collection of skills, including the ability to convey political naïveté, that helped win her influence and adoration. In the end, perhaps we should commemorate Jacobs less as a visionary and more as a citizen—a word that, after all, means not only member of a state, but also city dweller.
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2 comment(s)

AnonymousApril 15, 2008 22:26 EST


I am presently reading Jacob's System of Survival—-and I like it very much!

I have a few comments about this article.

First of all, I have to say something about the arguments against separation of Quebec: "that many Quebecers want to remain in Canada; that Quebec’s language and culture have flourished while remaining within Confederation; that if Canada is divisible, perhaps so is Quebec."
These are very bad arguments against separation, and I don't think that these arguments would have been relevant in Jacob’s point of view on separation. I think that you are taking sides about separation of Quebec. Jacob's point of view is very, very interesting and she brings very rational arguments for separation, arguments that are not necessarily well known — not usually the ones that guide people in their political choices. Jacob's ideas about separation of Quebec, just like most of her ideas, are truly clever, people need to know about them, and the criticism proposed here I think is a bit narrow minded and biased. On the contrary, I think that Jacob’s neutral position in this debate makes her theories even more interesting.

Secondly, the proposition that Jacob’s theories about depoliticizing statehood and nationality are “naïve or irresponsible” after 9/11 need to be explained. In what way 9/11 or any recent political events contradict Jacob’s theories? Your proposition seems very questionable to me, and it is strangely introduced, just like that at the end of the paragraph. It is another weak criticism proposed here in this article. Do you mean that it is irresponsible not to worry about the army and defense of territory? This criticism would also be, in my view, ideologically biased and eventually annoying, and missing the point of Jacob’s work.

Finally I just want to add that Jacob is one of the few intellectual whose ideas indeed really do matter, maybe because she grounds her theories and research on empirical data, as you cleverly highlighted. Too few intellectuals put together such brilliant, useful, and moreover true theories about economy, culture and human behaviours. I think that everyone should read her (and also Daniel C. Dennett, while we’re at it).

I am reading Systems of Survival presently, and I think that Jacob pinpointed a fundamental fact about professions and cultures with her dichotomy of moral values. I think it is a genuine piece of free-thinking about culture, and is very well written. I think that the way she presented her theories, in a dialogue between fictional intellectuals, is very useful to explain better, and defend, her uncommon theories, and allows us to confront them with what would be the most spontaneous and common criticisms about them. It is a good thing because, just like most thinkers who are trying to explain cultural phenomenon, Jacob could easily be accused of reductionism. But I think that this dialogue form, however useful against eventual criticisms, eventually keeps her from being more direct and thinking about these syndromes in a more straightforward and personal manner, and going deeper into the questions brought by her observations. For example it would have been interesting to discuss how and why these moral syndromes came to be dominant in certain countries’ cultures and certain religions, and how the dominance of a syndrome over another is brought about in the political life of a country/cultural zone—how these syndromes are ‘fighting’ each other. She talks about that when addressing the question of agriculture, but I feel like this would need more precisions and more examples/case studies. Also many links between her theories and other theories about culture can/need to be made. For example the link between Protestantism and capitalism. The link between genders’ cultures and behaviours and these syndromes. The question of the birth of commerce in prehistoric times. The link between these syndromes and the political right and left. These are important and complementary pieces in the puzzle of understanding and explaining human culture. It would also have been interesting to see in greater detail how these syndromes are spread and propagated in media, and how they are sometimes ‘imposed on people’. It would have been interesting to develop also on what fundamentally distinguishes a field suitable for a syndrome, commercial or guardian, and to see how these moral syndromes are essential and functional in certain fields—what does it take exactly in the environment to favour/justify guardian activities? Are some environments suitable for both syndromes? Agriculture, as Jacob points out, is an activity that has been occupied by both syndromes, but I feel like we need more precisions on how and why. Links with memetics would have been welcome. Jacob’s book triggers many questions and needs for precisions. But that will maybe be the object of other books, by other people. With Systems of Survival, she surely set the basis for a new way of considering culture and economic activities. That book will surely be very influent, mainly because of one very accurate empirical observation: that two fundamentally different syndromes of moral values repetitively appear, throughout history, in two different types of fields of the human economy and activities.

Wai Yip TungJanuary 03, 2011 12:41 EST


You comment, an essay of hundreds of words in itself, is more insightful than the article.

"Jacob's point of view is very, very interesting and she brings very rational arguments for separation, arguments that are not necessarily well known ... just like most of her ideas, are truly clever, people need to know about them"

This sum up my general feeling about Jacob's work pretty well. I'll be very interest on to follow her work on separation, whether I end up agree with her or not.

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