Is it time to rethink our view of Jane Jacobs as a visionary?
· Illustration by Jason Logan
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.