Jane Jacobs, 89

by Russ Roberts on April 26, 2006

in Complexity & Emergence

Jane Jacobs has passed away. From the Washington Post obit:

She attacked the arrogance of city planners for making decisions without consulting those affected.

"The
planner’s greatest shortcoming, I think, is lack of intellectual
curiosity about how cities work," she told the New York Times in 1969.
"They are taught to see the intricacy of cities as mere disorder. Since
most of them believe what they have been taught, they do not inquire
about the processes that lie behind the intricacy. I doubt that
knowledgeable city planning will come out of the present profession. It
is more likely to arise as an offshoot of economics."

I don’t think she made the right forecast in that last sentence. I suspect economists have just as much fear of "mere disorder" and not enough of us trust for order to emerge.

When "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" was published,
the director of the American Society of Planning Officials urged
members to "batten down the hatches." The usually urbane urban-planning
expert Lewis Mumford, insulted by his portrayal in the book, wrote a
critique of Mrs. Jacobs printed in the New Yorker magazine under the
heading "Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer."

Others
considered her a visionary. John Chamberlain, writing in the Wall
Street Journal, dubbed the book "a lucid and thoroughly devastating
attack on the shibboleths of the reigning school of modern city
planning." Decades later, New York Times architecture critic Paul
Goldberger wrote that the book "was to urban planning what Rachel
Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was to the environmental movement, and it is
arguably the most important book written about cities in the 20th
century."

She also wrote a book on the Hayekian nature of economies and cities, The Nature of Economies, written as a dialogue. Friends of this web page might enjoy it.

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{ 3 comments }

Eric Anondson April 26, 2006 at 11:40 am

For one of my geography classes at the University of Minnesota I was assigned to read another of ther books. "Cities and the Wealth of Nations." Maybe I was such an impressionable youth at the time, but it so impressed me that I have now re-read it twice.

That it is short and well written made it a great help. Her main thesis seems to be that the global economy's most important units are cities (or city regions) not nations, individuals, or corporations.

iceberg April 26, 2006 at 11:45 am

First a disclaimer- I am not too familiar with the contents of Jane Jacobs' famous book. However, I'm under the impression that Jane Jacobs was at the core just as statist as Robert Moses, only that she had a different vision of what would constitute 'order' as far as city planning goes.

For instance, she disagreed with Robert Moses over running highways all over the place (notably the BQE, and a planned highway running through lower Manhattan which was never realized).

But just like Moses, it seems that she subscribed to the same school — that central planning is fine, as long as the "correct" version is accepted and implemented.

It is no less authoritarian to dictate how neighborhoods should be zoned, or how the aesthetics therein should be preserved or otherwise.

It would serve us all better to understand the true nature of reality, that there does not exist an objective defition for the terms "order" and "disorder"; they are purely subjective terms under which individual judgements are made which declare certain patterns within chaos to be pleasing and desirable, or less pleasing, and hence undesirable.

Reference Robert Anton Wilson's dissertion of this in the Principia Discordia for a better understanding.

liberty April 26, 2006 at 2:03 pm

I think was statist in her rational, but had some instinct as to complex systems, hayekian order – though it was little developed. She saw emergence is cities' natural growth, but never developed this into a true non-planned theory of growh of the city.

She ddn't want housing projects in the village in manhattan because she saw the natural growth of the neighborhood as superior, but this did not lead to a full appreciation of the market economy and natural order.

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