This Research Bulletin has been published in Environment and Planning A, 38 (11), (2006), 1981-1992.
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Jane Jacobs led me astray. As a geography undergraduate at Liverpool University in the mid-1960s I spent much of my time reading books that were not on course reading lists. The most readable book and most influential (as proven by the fact that I have never forgotten its message) was Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Concern for new roads destroying communities was just becoming an issue at this time in Liverpool and other British cities and therefore Jacobs’ defence of US cities chimed with my own growing interest in cities. I was intending to become a town planner and found Jacobs’ critique of the profession intriguing. I read Jacobs’ book in my second year and a year later I found myself being interviewed for a planning assistant position with London County Council. To prepare for the latter, I read a serious book on planning, the Buchanan Report on future traffic needs through and around cities (Ministry of Transport 1963). When it came to the end of the interview and I was offered the opportunity to ask the interview panel questions, I ventured to query what they thought of the conundrum that building a sixteen-lane highway1 down London’s Oxford Street to accommodate traffic forecasts would obviously destroy the shopping centre thus actually resulting in the generation of no traffic. My question was considered amusing and there ended my planning career before it had even started. I blame Jane Jacobs; this appreciation of her works is my very belated thank you.
Most appreciations of major thinkers today will include an appendix consisting of a long list of the subject’s publications. Not so here. The oeuvre of Jane Jacobs consists of just six major books.2
In addition there have been two books that celebrate her work and in which she elaborates upon, and clarifies, certain positions.
So there we have it: 6 major publications in 43 years, clearly no good in RAE terms.4 But then Jacobs never held an academic post in a university; indeed she never obtained any university qualification5.
Who was Jane Jacobs? In the Allen (1997) tribute a range descriptors6 are provided: ‘a “housekeeper”’, ‘a person whose vocation has been at the intersection of the domestic and civil worlds’ (page xi), ‘magazine writer’ (page5), ‘a kind of natural economist’ (page 12), ‘an independent scholar’ (page28), ‘urban visionary’ (page 29), ‘urban futurist’ (page30), a ‘sociologist’ (page 53), an ‘explorer’ (page53), a ‘Greenwich Village housewife’ (page56), and ‘the world-famous apostle of liveable cities’ (back cover). She was all of these things but, going back to her non-university background, she was above all, as Fulford (1997) emphasises, an ‘amateur’ writing about professional and academic matters for which she had no qualifications. And this seems to have been an advantage: it was, as he saw it, the ‘triumph of the amateur’ against “credentialism”’ (page 7). Fulford locates Death and Life with four other books of the early 1960s where ‘non-qualified’ authors made huge impacts: Growing up Absurd by Paul Goodman (1960), The Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962), The Feminine Mystique by Betty Frieden (1963), Unsafe at Any Speed by Ralph Nader (1963), and Understanding Media by Marshall McLuhan (1964). All five books identified an absurdity in orthodox expert thinking and broadened their specific concern to feed into a wider critique of modern ‘progress’ (Fulford 1997, 8). In Giddens’ (1994) terminology, these authors are precursors of today’s ‘post-traditional society’ where all sources of ‘authority’ are questioned. This is explicit in Death and Life which uses the maxim: ”Distrust “experts” and look for yourself’ (Allen 1997, page 11). More generally, Jacobs’ whole oeuvre has been described as ‘a manifesto for a critical lay intelligence’ (Keeley 1989a, page 33).
As an amateur in the professional’s den, Jacobs has come in for some trenchant criticism, some of it quite personal. Death and Life, for instance, put the doyen of US city planning, Lewes Mumford, into ‘a boiling rage’ (Fulford 1997, page 6) and he took to denigrating Jacobs as ‘Mother Jacobs’ (Allen 1997, page 96) to emphasize her non-professional status. Basically planners argued that she did not understand planning, while economists did not understand how economics could be done without equations. Going beyond their elemental angers, both groups found antiquated arguments in her work concerning idealised old neighbourhoods and romantic myths of eighteenth century economies respectively. But, as indicated previously, Jacobs won over her critics: in planning Hill (1998) has recognised that Jacobs created a paradigm shift in the profession (Fulford 1997, page 8); in economics interest in Jacobs for externalities is pinpointed to 1988,7 and consolidated by Glaeson et al’s (1991) empirical validation of Jacobs against other models developed by professional economists (Nowlan 1997). But there remain two important clusters of criticism that need to be addressed. These relate to Jacobs’ research methodology, and the role of politics and power in her prescriptions.
First, the question of methodology: Cichello (1989, page 123) sums up the criticism succinctly:
He provides a detailed defence of Jacobs (pages 130-41) that can be summarised as Jacobs being evaluated in terms of a method, the hypothetico-deductive model, which she chooses not to use. Rather she employs inductive methods. Proponents of the hypothetico-deductive are notorious for their distain of induction and Jacobs bears the full brunt of their scientific narrow-mindedness. Confronting ‘modern neatness’ again but in this new guise, Jacobs describes her research as ‘just messy, muddly work’ (Keeley 1989a, page 35). It is, of course, through such a ‘“messy” cycle of trial and error’ that the best science is done (Cichello 1989, page 132). Jacobs has been quite explicit on her working methods:
Keeley (1989a, page 36) calls this method ‘the discipline of dialectical questioning, initiated by genuine wondering’; I prefer Cichello’s (1989, page 127) description of it as ‘a gradual process of accumulated “insights” based on the experience of the mind as always questioning’. And its veracity is sometimes conceded by her critics: one economist has referred to ‘her remarkable intuition’ (page 123); another notes that ’I can’t lift equations out of her books; but they’re stimulating as hell’ (Feeney 1997, page12). Insights and intuition require initial curiosity and Jacobs’ concern for the latter turns out to be her starting point: the initial problem with the profession of planning was simply that it lacked ‘curiosity’ about how cities worked (Jacobs’ 1997a, page 4). The key point is that the bottom up inductive method avoids the fallacy that in social science we always know what the question is. Those who think they do know are often prone to mechanical, robotic research, of which more later.
The criticism that Jacobs’ does not address politics and power is a complex, and often very contradictory, issue. As a community activist Jacobs was, of course, very attuned to matters of politics and power. In addition, her work in general provides much ammunition for confronting those with power; it is, as I have shown, supremely non reverential to those with power in many contexts. But here the contradictions soon creep in. Clearly, broadly of the Left, many of her prescriptions appear attractive to right-wing political programmes (Allen 1997, page 111). Certainly her embrace of markets and small-scale entrepreneurship fit well with conservative politics (page 61). This is how Michael Harrington (1997) interprets it from a sociologist perspective, although, not surprisingly, the anarchist George Woodcock (1997) is more sympathetic. Of course, she is not the first on the Left to embrace markets (see Wallerstein (1991) on Braudel) and she defends her positions in two different ways. At the practical political level she is horrified to be linked with Thatcherism (Keeley and Jacobs 1997, page 18), and dismisses her critics as ‘tied up in ideology’ that blinds their thinking (Allen 1997, page 111). But the important answer to her critics comes at a more theoretical level.
There is no doubt that the question of distribution does not feature prominently in Jacobs’ work except in her emphasis on the creation of jobs and therefore the reduction of unemployment. In fact she identifies ‘welfare programs … to bring standards of living and services in poor regions into line with those of prospering city regions unfortunately … as transactions of decline’ (Jacobs 1984, page 191). Further she sees the welfare state as more of a drain on cities than military expenditure. Clearly unpalatable to Left thinking as her ‘unfortunately’ indicates, Jacobs position is a simple one: creation of economic life has to come before broaching the question of distribution. Many socialists, including Marxists, appear to think that capitalists have ‘solved’ the ‘production problem’ and it is their political task to move on to the ‘distribution problem’. This static view of economics has resulted in Marxists creating the greatest nineteenth century industrial state in history but with unfortunate timing: they achieved this state in the twentieth century. One of the puzzles that stimulated Jacobs has been to find out why successful revolutionary leaders have been so bad at economics (Allen 1997, page 239). Her answer has turned out to be that they operate through the guardian syndrome that is explicitly not a recipe for economic expansion (Jacobs 1992, pages 98-102). Thus despite their politics based upon an economic theory, Marxist leaders have operated highly–centralised planning that simply cannot cope with the complexity that is the vibrant economy. In Jacobs’ words, since they have ‘nothing to offer’ on how economies develop, they finish up with not having ‘anything much to distribute’ (Keeley and Jacobs 1987, 17).
This argument translates directly from the internal politics of the erstwhile ‘second world’ to the aid programmes intended to ‘develop’ what was the ‘third world’. In Jacobs’ own words:
The last sentence derives from Jacobs (1969) but her main foray into this argument in her books is Jacobs (1984) and (1992). I have used the latter for a contemporary critique of ‘development’ ( Taylor 2006a). But there is an irony here: Jacobs’ economics with its emphasis on expansion of economic life is particular relevant to the erstwhile third world but her books do not feature third world cities. The reason is straightforward; the contemporary cities she writes about are those she has experienced. At the very beginning of her writings this part of her method is spelt out: ‘You’ve got to get out and walk. Walk, and you will see that many of the assumptions … are visibly wrong’ (Jacobs 1957, 142). Thus, when she does deal directly with world development issues it is from the perspective of cities in rich countries projecting their economic power to distort third world economies (Jacobs 1984). This makes her vulnerable to the criticism that her prescriptions do not take into account the reality – power politics – of third world ‘development’. This point is made forcefully by Bauer (1985), a sympathetic critic of Jacobs (1984), for whom political conditions are critical. From Jacobs’ (1992) later argument we might say that the practices guided by the guardian syndrome in the third world are more towards the raiding end of the ‘raiding-protection scale’ than Jacobs has experienced in her walking cities (Robert Moses9 was a pussy cat compared to motley warlords in today’s third world). However, I still think the moral syndromes way of thinking about development has a lot to offer in understanding the failures of ‘development’ ( Taylor 2006a).
One feature of the criticisms of Jabobs is that critics often focus on particular parts without taking in the whole argument of a book. This is important because all Jacobs’ books have a very strong purpose resulting in the whole being much more than the sum of the parts. The same can be said for her whole oeuvre. The basic point is that she is a revolutionary writer in the full sense of the word. She does not enter a field of study to revise or reform it; she turns it upside down. She is the amateur who can see through the professionals’ lack of clothes. She has done this on three occasions. Her foundation book (Jacobs 1961) reveals modernist planning to be a sterile exercise in destroying neighbourhoods and city life. Her economics trilogy (Jacobs 1969a, 1984 and 2000) exposes economics to be a pitiful exercise in misunderstanding the nature of economic life. Her foray into moral philosophy is even more revolutionary. Here, as far as I know, there has been no critique from within the discipline. And this is in keeping with the argument. Philosophy itself is ‘a lop-sided intellectual enterprise’ that focuses on creating knowledge for guardian purposes (Jacobs 1987, page 266). The ethics of humble commercial people has been ‘simply overlooked in the high-minded philosophical tradition’ with its ‘singular fixation on virtuous rule’ (page 266). So there we have it, philosophers for rulers join national economic modellers and urban and regional planners in Jacobs’ firing line.
The fact that her opponents are all on the guardian side of the moral syndrome pairing needs commenting upon. It can lead to an assumption that Jacobs favours the commercial syndrome over the guardian one. Jacobs has always been careful to refute this notion (Lawrence 1987, page 274). Both are necessary (Jacobs 1992, page 34). She defines civilization as ‘mutual support of morally contradictory trading and taking; it tames both activities and their derivatives’ to produce a ‘reasonably workable guardian-commercial symbiosis’ (page 214). This conclusion is from what she has termed her serious book but turning things upside down is fun and I will conclude this appreciation by identifying one idea from each of her major works that I have particularly enjoyed.
Going back to Death and Life after surveying Jacobs’ oeuvre is to realise that the germs of what come later are easy to find. This is especially true with methodology, which is featured in the last chapter ‘The kind of problem a city is’ (pages 442-62). Following Warren Weaver (1958), Jacobs identifies three types of scientific problem: simplicity, disorganized complexity, and organized complexity (pages 442-3). Her thesis is that planners see cities in simple terms as separated relations between pairs of variables, or as disorganized complexity with multiple related variables. The latter is the more sophisticated and demands statistical analysis. This can be useful at the margins but as a sole means for understanding the city it can be very dangerous:
This way of thinking destroys cities because cities have to be understood as organized complexity where multiple variables are ‘interrelated into an organic whole’ (page 446). Jacobs draws three methodological implications: think about processes, work inductively, and seek out the ‘unaverage’ (page 454). The planner’s static maps are instances of processes that can be best understood by observing how people use the city, especially unusual uses that may be vital clues to the workings of the city. All this chimes with my previous discussion on methodology above; the ideas in this chapter are particularly developed in Jacobs (2000). Let me leave the last word to a complex systems analyst discussing this remarkable chapter:
This chapter is the part of her first book that I have always remembered.
Of all her books, it is with The Economy of Cities that I have found most difficulty in picking out one highlight: it is packed with intriguing contrary notions. The two critical ideas are ‘Cities first – rural development later’ (Jacobs 1969, chapter 1) and ‘Explosive city growth’ (chapter 5) but I choose the chapter with the most preposterous title – ‘The valuable inefficiencies and impracticalities of cities’ (chapter 3). Planners reaching this part of the book must have thought she had finally lost it: inefficiency and impracticality are surely not good. Jacobs admits it is a paradox (page 86) but these city deficiencies ‘are exactly what make cities uniquely valuable to economic life’ which she emphasises by adding:
That’s clear enough but what can it mean? Surely capitalists strive for efficiency to beat the competition and make high profits. Well yes and no. It depends what kind of work is being discussed. With production work, what Jacobs calls ‘old work’, the work can be done by any firm willing to invest in the necessary human and physical capital. Here efficiency will mark out the winners. But much important for economic life, and for Jacobs it is the defining feature of cities, is new work. This is development work which Jacobs describes as:
A messy, time- and energy-consuming business of trial, error and failure. The only certainties in it are trail and error. Success is not a certainty. And even when the result is successful, it is often a surprise, not what was actually being sought’ (page 90).
To cut out the ‘waste’ (failures) to make this process efficient is impossible; to try will destroy it. Why do firms do development work? For the simple reason that when there is success the new work is not available to competitors; it is innovation monopolies where the largest profits are made. In addition it is the impracticalities of cities that provide the opportunities to ‘solve’ through development work and create new work throughout a network of cities (pages 103-7). No wonder it is big cities that are constituted as both locus of big problems and locus of big solutions in an expanding economic life. I like paradoxes; this is one of my favourites.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations has been indispensable for my work on the world city network (Taylor 2004, chapter 2) but my immense appreciation of the book came to full fruition in the mid-1990s. Why not when the book first appeared? Well, there is one chapter of the book called ‘The predicament’ (Jacobs 1984, chapter 13) which suggests that future historians will pick 1977 as the ‘date for the beginnings of Japanese decline’ (page 207). Japan was the great economic success story from the 1950s into the 1980s and therefore the oddity was not that Japan might decline – rise and decline was accepted as the norm for all successful countries – but that in 1984 someone would suggest that the decline was underway. Let me put this in contemporary context: the USSR was a declining political power and the consensus was that Japan was the USA’s next rival; an economic competitor, it appeared to beating the USA economically in stupendous fashion. When the USSR finally disintegrated in 1989-91 the political joke at the time was that in the contest USA v.s USSR the winner was, wait for it, Japan! However, this was precisely the time when Japanese economic growth stalled, although the immensity of the turnaround was not appreciated for several years (not in my writing in 1993/4, for instance (see Taylor 1996, chapter 6)). How come Jacobs alone spotted the problem as early as 1984 while all other economic commentators were assuming Japan’s economic growth would simply continue? The answer, of course, is that Jacobs had a process that incorporated decline, which she could see beginning in Japan. These are the transaction of decline previously referred to whereby national governments draw out the energy of vibrant cities to subsidise regions without vibrant cities. In Japan’s case, with its rural politicians having key roles in Liberal Party governments, government expenditure began outpacing creation of wealth by central Japanese cities in 1977 resulting in national tax rises. But subsidies do not solve the regional problem they merely ameliorate while they place financial burdens on the wealth-creating cities. Given this process Jacobs was able to
What a prediction in 1984, she seems to have got only the ‘gradually’ wrong; decline was abruptly felt from 1990.
Systems of Survival is my favourite book and within it the chapter on ‘Trading, taking and monstrous hybrids’ was the particular eye-opener for me (Jacobs 1992, chapter 6). Since the two moral syndromes have contrary ethics and since ‘loss or destruction of any part impairs the integrity of the whole’ (page 101), it follows that mixing syndromes is highly problematic. The usual outcome is a ‘monstrous hybrid’, creating a set of practices that reproduces the worst of both ways of making a living. For instance, ‘the Mafia picks and chooses as it pleases from the commercial syndrome. While its basic framework is the guardian syndrome, it adds trading’ (page 96) in both illegitimate and lawful forms. But none of the trading is in accord with the commercial syndrome because intimidation (force replacing choice) underpins all their activities. Thus successful commercial life cannot be reproduced where the mafia and its ilk are dominant; southern Italy remains the classic case. Controversially, Jacobs sees the USSR as ‘structurally’ similar to the mafia (page 102). This is because, irrespective of the motives of the actors, in both cases ‘into an otherwise strong guardian syndrome comes the same massive breach of the guardian precept to shun trading’ (page 102). The USSR conducted the transactions of decline to the nth degree in creating its own monstrous hybrid. That there can be no third way of making a living has been illustrated by the history of the USSR (page 97). Guardians may be able to organise ‘old work’ but they have no way of creating ‘new work’ as previously noted. Thus ‘the Marxist vision is booby trapped from the word go’ (page 98). If we want an epitaph for this brave social experiment it would hard to better: ‘Lurking behind the scenes was merely the same old guardian syndrome and a disastrously crippled commercial syndrome. That was all’ (page 101).
Perhaps the most audacious example of Jacobs’ turning conventional thinking upside down is to be found in The Nature of Economies in the chapter on ‘The nature of expansion’ (Jacobs 2000, chapter 3). Jacobs espouses the ‘energy-flow hypothesis of economic expansion’ (page 62) that she explicitly sets up to counter what economics and common sense tell us: that expansion of settlements derives from ‘competitively successful export work’ (page 49). The export multiplier effect is why ‘so much economic hope rests in free trade: more trade, more exporting; more exporting, more multiplier jobs’ (page 50). But what if this is not the prime means of expansion, or indeed is merely itself an outcome of expansion? Jacobs comes to the latter position through treating city economies as natural systems that work through capturing and using energy. Thus:
This principal focuses on the system as a ‘conduit’ for energy wherein ‘multiple energy use’ by ‘diverse, interdependent users’ generates expansion (page 47). Viewing the city in this manner treats exports as ‘discharged energy’ that cannot therefore be the ‘driving energy’ of the system (page 52). Rather the driver for economic expansion is the stretching of imports in the conduit through human labour and human capital working in varied and complex ways. Thus she returns to the vibrant, diverse city that is at the centre of all her oeuvre. Its multiple energy users create and sustain economic expansion. In practice this means that instead of measuring export-multiplier ratios we need ‘import stretching ratios’ measured as ‘total production/total inputs’ (page 60). Since no one has treated cities in this manner the empirical basis of the hypothesis is limited. Jacobs uses two examples of economic ‘anomalies’ when cities experienced rapid growth in times of export decline: late sixteenth century London, late 1940s Los Angeles (page 51). These economic puzzles break the simple cause and effect model of export-led growth, a simple model based upon a mechanical methodology that Jacobs, as we have seen, abhors. The implications of relegating the significance of trade in these times of globalization are immensely profound and important.
Dark Days Ahead (Jacobs 2004) is a warning. The book consists of discussion of decay in ‘five pillars of our culture that we depend on to remain firm’ (page 24). Once again she eschews the conventional; we expect discussion of ‘doom topics’ such as environmental destruction and economic polarization but these are interpreted ‘as symptoms of breakdown’ in her chosen processes (page 25). Here I focus on two related ‘pillars’, chapters on ‘Credentialing versus education’ (chapter 3) and ‘Science abandoned’ (chapter 4). The former brings us full-circle, reminding us of the young amateur confronting a professionally qualified establishment in 1961. She views the growth of universities in recent years as not so much the expansion of higher education but rather the growth of higher credentialing. In such a context learning becomes incidental and cheating almost condoned (page 51). Credentialing can lead to pseudo-science where practitioners go through given steps but never learn, they just keep repeating what they had to remember to become accredited. In her lament about some contemporary science she criticises robotic, mechanical use of ‘expert knowledge’ on cities; that of traffic engineers still misunderstanding the complexity of cities (ppage 71-9), sociologists doing surveys that tell us the obvious (pages 71-87), and economists who don’t like puzzles (ppage 87-100). The common denominators are the lack of curiosity and the loss of the art of induction. The final example is particularly interesting because she finds another example of a booming city region during and export turndown. In 2002 Greater Toronto experienced economic expansion just as the USA, Canada’s great export market (85% of exports!) went into recession. For ‘incurious economists’ who believe that growth is led by exports, this ‘couldn’t’ or ‘shouldn’t be happening’ (page 87). So here is Toronto resident Jacobs experiencing exactly the anomaly she uses to justify her energy-flow hypothesis of economic expansion from The Nature of Economics. Thus she is able to provide an observer’s description of the process. This is in contrast to the expert scientists:
Beyond her examples she identifies this ‘rot of bad science’ affecting foreign aid programmes, anti-drug policies, dubious medical fads, nutrition advice and agricultural recommendations (page 99). Oh dear.
I hope I have illustrated my feelings of fun (laced with seriousness) through these snippets of Jacobs’ ideas. When reading her books I always have a most unprofessional thought lurking at the back of my mind: ‘Sock it to’em Jane!’. An appreciation must always be a personal essay but I fear there is too much of the person of the author than the subject in this text. This is because, unfortunately, I never had the privilege to meet Jane Jacobs. In order to understand her more as a rounded individual I refer readers to the personal material in Lawrence (1989) and especially in Allen (1997). However I can end on a note about the person in my subject by illustrating her attractive modesty. In discussing her work on the two moral syndromes she makes it clear that she is concerned for making a living, which is just part of making a life. Given that her oeuvre has been about revolutionising economics she advises us that ‘We must recognize that the best things in life have nothing to do with economics’ (Lawrence 1989, page 199). There appears to be not the slightest bit of pretentiousness in someone so lauded and commonly viewed as a genius.
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1. This ‘solution’ was described in the Buchanan Report
2. These contain all her ideas that make her such an influential writer. There is another book (Jacobs, 1980) that deals with a specific topic ( Quebec separatism) and derives from radio lectures she was invited to do by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. These ideas are explored more generally in Jacobs (1984). Her other few publications are similarly more fully fleshed out in the six books. An early book chapter (Jacobs 1957) led on to the project that produced Death and Life; a rare journal article (Jacobs 1969b) reprises the message of Jacobs (1969a); and of her three chapters in Lawrence (1989), two (Jacobs 1989a and b) are introducing ideas that came to fruition in Jacobs (1992), and one returns to ideas in Jacobs (1984). She also edited her aunt’s memoir on frontier life in Alaska (Allen 1997, page 147).
3. According to Florida (2002, page 222) Nobel Prize winner economist Robert Lucas suggested Jane Jacobs should be considered for an economics Nobel Prize.
4. For non-UK readers, RAE stands for Research Assessment Exercise in which every ‘returned’ researcher has to have four publications per review period (4-6 years).
5. She took some course in the School of General Studies at Columbia University in the late 1930s but never graduated (Jacobs 1989, 4-5). In her later life she refused honorary degrees because she was against ‘credentialism’ (Lawrence 1989, 150)
6. I have chosen here ‘neutral’ descriptors, missing out derogatory and praise adjectives.
7. See footnote 2
8. I do not deal with her ‘time perspective’ here because it is too large a subject; in essence I interpret her work as searching out transhistorical processes.
9. Moses was the all-powerful New York planning chief who Jacobs fought against and defeated in her early 1960s community activism.
Edited and posted on the web on 22nd September 2006
Note: This Research Bulletin has been published in Environment and Planning A, 38 (11), (2006), 1981-1992