GaWC Research Bulletin 466

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This Research Bulletin is a draft chapter from Peter J. Taylor, Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe forthcoming book Jane Jacobs and Anthropogenic Climate Change.


A Jane Jacobs’ Legacy

P.J. Taylor, G. O'Brien and P. O'Keefe*


‘There’s no doubt … that this is just the right time for “more Jane Jacobs”  … to reimagine Jacobs herself as more than a symbol of urban sorrow or urban triumph. Always idiosyncratic and unorthodox, often to risk being wrong if it means reorienting stale conventional wisdom, she pushes beyond the familiar alarms to see urban transformation as a source of radical possibility and opportunity … Jacobs was perhaps our greatest theorist of the city not as a modern machine for living but as a human system, geared for solving its own problems.‘

Zipp and Storring (2016b, xvii-xviii)

Jane Jacobs will have many legacies. The reference above to her as ‘greatest theorist of the city’ is probably derived from a Planetizen survey in 2009 where Jacobs was ranked first amongst the “Top 100 Urban Thinkers” by a reader’s poll (Goldsmith and Lynne 2010, xxiv). Planetizen is an American urban planning news website. A similar survey from the same source in 2017 again ranked her first, this time as “The Most Influential Urbanist” of all time. The accompanying citation refers to two aspects of her work: the book Death and Life of the Great American City (Jacobs 1961) and her battle with Robert Moses over New York planning issues in the 1950s and 60s ( This surely represents her prime legacy (Hirt 2012a). Still in print today and always mentioned on the front cover of all her subsequent books, Death and Life catapulted Jacobs into literary stardom as an authority of things urban: the book is credited with igniting paradigmatic change in the theory and practice of city planning. And Jacobs’ reputation rests upon much more than her writing. She was a protestor and activist, defender of communities and advocate of civil disobedience; her successful community struggles that complemented her book has become the stuff of legends, a modern Goliath and David story (Flint 2009; Lang and Wunsch 2009) that has made its way on to the silver screen – see Altimeter Films’ Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. Lawrence (2016) has shown that it was not quite so simple – Jacobs was a seasoned professional writer before she wrote Death and Life. However, as Zipp and Storring also point out above, there is more to Jacobs than this urban celebrity. Post-1960s there is a steady stream of new Jacobs’ books that are, in their different ways, equally imaginative and original. Thus the extensive legacy of Jacobs far outstrips her halting of Moses’ bulldozers. As well as city planning she makes radical incursions into other areas of thought and practice in economics, philosophy, politics, and environmental and education studies. Although typically dwarfed by Death and Life these later challenges to orthodox thinking are given equal relevance in deriving a legacy we set out below.

We have constructed a specific Jane Jacobs legacy to fit our particular needs as set out in the Declarations. Jacobs makes a few references to climate change but there is no systematic pursuit of the subject in her work. For instance, we might expect her final book Dark Age Ahead (Jacobs 2004) to tackle this matter but all we have is a short reference to the premier of Ontario being against signing the Kyoto accord because it would put Ontario jobs at risk in competition with the USA (p. 60), which simply endorses our Declaration 3. Elsewhere there are brief references to fossil fuels generating global warming where she defends economic development as preferable to stagnation: only through development will the alternative energy sources be created to replace polluting fuels (Jacobs 2000, 129; Jacobs 2002/2016, 396-7). Thus in this book we are not taking forward a copious body of ideas she has developed on this topic. Rather we are writing in the same spirit that Marguerite van den Berg (2016) employs: in her gender studies she uses Jacobs in order to better understand ‘genderfying’ the city. Although Jacobs did not write as a feminist – she did briefly comment on gender issues (Jacobs 1994/2016, 328-36; see also Berman 1998, 322) – van den Berg does show that her ideas, and particularly the way she worked, can be engaged with so as to contribute to a feminist discourse. This is how we use Jacobs discursively in this book. The Jacobs legacy we outline below is built to inform broadly how we might think about and engage with anthropogenic climate change.

We have selected five areas of Jacobs’ thought and practice that we believe can have direct relevance to confronting the existential threat that is climate change. These are knowledge, economics, history, politics and nature. Cities appear to be conspicuous by their absence in this list but in fact they are a unifying theme throughout this sequence of critical topics.

Knowledge Building

Above all, Jane Jacobs was a knowledge builder. Lawrence (2016) describes the context in which she carried out this pursuit (see also Hirt (2012b), and Szurmak and Desrochers 2017). In this pursuit she maintained two guiding principles: a respect for complexity, and curiosity as a necessity. This ‘how and why combo’ enabled her to create new evidence-based theory across a range of fields of knowledge.

The starting point for considering Jacobs’ contribution is the oft-quoted final chapter of Death and Life (Jacobs 1961) entitled “The kind of problem a city is”. Musing on previous chapters describing tragedies of city planning theory and practice, Jacobs concludes that it all comes down to a fatal misunderstanding of the nature of cities. She draws on a recent interpretation of the history of scientific thought by Warren Weaver (1948). He identified three different types of research problem, each to be solved by a different methodology. First, problems of simplicity – cause and effect processes involving few variables – are soluble through basic experiment. Second, problems of disorganized complexity – the inter-relations between large numbers of variables – are soluble using statistical probabilities. Third, problems of organized complexity – simultaneous inter-relations of many variables organized into a functional whole – are soluble by holistic understanding. It is this latter case that we confront in cities and therefore policies based upon cause and effect or statistical predictions are doomed to failure. It is not just that they are partial, but by not comprehending this particular complexity, resulting policies inevitably lead to multiple unintended consequences, many harmful to cities. This view of science remains vital to Jacobs thinking and she continues to use it many decades later (Jacobs 2004b/2016, 441)

Jacobs (1961, 454) draws three methodological lessons, which she calls ‘important habits of thought’: to focus on processes; to start inductively; and to privilege small ‘unaverage’ clues. The latter is the most unusual instruction; it replaces statistical generalization with curiosity - why such an odd occurrence? This puzzle solving has also been a key source of criticism. Her methodology draws on inquisitive observation and veracious reading to provide anecdotes that pepper her writings. However these are cited as evidence of a deficiency in the ‘normal standards of scholarship’ (Harris (2011, 80). Chichello (1989, 123) describes more broadly the situation as follows:

‘There is, clearly, a common core of criticisms, a familiar litany of complaints: she lacks rigor and careful observation; her presentation of data is sporadic and selectively chosen to make her case; her examples and categorizations are incorrect or inconclusive. Her time perspective is distorted, and her theory in general is unsupported by models or statistics.’ 

To be sure her method of investigation is ‘messy, muddly work’ (Keeley 1989, 35; see also Szurmak and Desroches 2017, 8), a journey of trial and error (Chichello 1989, 132), the exact opposite to the hypothetical-deductive method favoured by economists and many other social scientists. But this is how the ways of research operate; the neat, logical sequence that is presented in scientific papers is just that, a presentation and one that tends to conceal research curiosity. However she accepted that scientific thinking could operate in both ways; it was simply a matter of where the hypothesis was formulated in the research process, at the very beginning or near the end (Jacobs 2004, 68-9). But whatever the method, curiosity remained the key. Keeley (1989, 33) calls this her ‘way of wonder’: expect the unexpected because all research requires those Eureka moments (Jacobs 1993/2016, 319).

In two of her later books, Systems of Survival and Nature of Economies (Jacobs (1992, 2000), Jacobs experiments with a very different form of presentation to relay her puzzle solving. Didactic dialogue is used by invented characters who argue and debate alterative positions in a fictional novel format. In this way Jacobs presents her argument as an unfolding narrative of disputes tested through evidence and through which she hopes her readers will get involved. Both books provide further knowledge building, Nature of Economies will feature strongly in later sections, here we focus on Systems of Survival that investigates alternative moral codes in the world of work.

Jacobs explores the moral contradictions in doing the ‘right thing’ in a working environment. Two behavioural traits that are generally seen as being good are loyalty and honesty but these can often be in conflict. This is obvious in job recruitment; should a new management job be kept in the family or go to the best-qualified candidate? From such simple conundrums Jacobs builds two separate moral syndromes, the practical knowledge that is required for success in two different types of work, which she calls Commercial and Guardian. For the former a successful economy has honest traders, for the latter a successful polity has loyal subjects. Both these virtues are valid and necessary but only in the right context. For instance, a loyal trader (not getting the best deal) is likely to end up bankrupt; an honest general (easily outsmarted by an adversary) is likely to lose the battle. This practical knowledge has been generated through experience over millennia so that the Commercial moral syndrome validates cosmopolitanism, enterprise, initiative and thriftiness; the Guardian moral syndrome encourages a territorial focus, obedience, largesse and ostentation. Jacobs own knowledge building in this work is an addition to the practical philosophical thought tradition that has focussed on providing advice to the ruler (Guardians of the state) while largely ignoring ethics in the market place (Commerce in the city) (Jacobs 1989, 266; Jacobs 1993/2016, 295).

These moral syndromes impinge directly on the work of knowledge building beyond philosophy. Jacobs (1992, xii) points out that ‘science flourishes only in societies that have achieved commercial vitality, but art can flourish in in societies that lack commerce as well’ (see also Jacobs 1989, 219, 221). However, she sees academia as largely Guardian in orientation deriving from traditional universities but extending into modern universities as academic defence of intellectual territories: “There are whole fields of learning that are jealously guarded as territory within certain departments of academia” (p. 236). Academic disciplines are not called ‘disciplines’ for nothing! There is an irony here in terms of marketing her books: the publisher has to indicate on the cover where each book is located in the roster of academic disciplines. Here are the results for her main books: Death and Life is ‘Sociology’; Economy of Cities is ‘Economics & Sociology’; Cities and Wealth is ‘Economics’; Systems of Survival is ‘Sociology/Public Policy’; Nature of Economics is ‘Business/Economics’; and Dark Age Ahead is identified as dealing with ‘culture’. The latter includes education and in this her final book Jacobs (2004) totally admonishes today’s universities; ‘Credentialing, not education, has become the primary business of North American Universities’ (p. 45). Accompanied by a decline of scientific thinking – the rise of the ‘incurious’ (p. 87) – this failure of knowledge building is at the heart of her predicted ‘dark days ahead’.

Revising Economics

In the problem of marketing Jacobs’ books by disciplines described above the two social sciences most featured are Sociology and Economics. As Zipp and Storing (2016a, 311) point out this is somewhat ironic for former because of Jacobs frustrations with a Sociology dominated by deductive thinking; her distain for the discipline is clear “Sociologists never have made a science of their subject, they just do busy work’ (Jacobs 1993/2016, 311; but see also Jacobs 2004, 83-5, and later sociologists embracing her as an ‘urban sociologist’ (Hirt 2012a, 101-35)). With regard to Economics her attitude is very different. Albeit very critical, she engages with Economics. In reviewing her work late in life, she even goes as far as saying that she had ‘learned, finally, what I was doing – revising economics’ (Jacobs (2004a/2016, 409).

This seems a long way from the Jacobs of Death and Life producing a ‘paradigm shift’ in city planning. But as Jacobs (1992/2016, 276) tells us

… learning and thinking about city streets and the trickiness of city parks launched me into an unexpected treasure hunt … Thus one discovery led to another ….. Some of the findings from the hunt fill (Death and Life) … Others … have gone into four further books. Obviously (Death and Life) exerted an influence on me, and lured me into my subsequent life’s work.

Towards the end of her life she began to bring her writings together as an Economics textbook (Jacobs 2004a/2016, 406), starting appropriately with a puzzle: why can’t the rich countries of the West eliminate poverty? Her answer is that ‘Important pieces of economic understanding must clearly be missing or misleading’ (p. 411); hence the need for ‘a new way of understanding macroeconomic behavior’ (p. 406).

The textbook was never finished - we have only 25 pages provided by Zipp and Storing (2016a, 406-31) - but we know it was to be produced as a stripped-down (sans anecdotes?) amalgam of previous books. Jacobs’ engagement with Economics starts with Adam Smith with whom she disputes two key assumptions. First, there is Smith’s argument for efficiencies due to division of labour being instrumental to wealth creation. She calls this ‘Smith’s mistake’: ‘division of labour in itself creates nothing’. It is only ‘a way of organising work that has already been created’ (Jacobs 1970, 82). However economic development is creation of new work and therefore division of labour has no power in this respect. Froy (2018) brings this debate up to date. Second, Smith’s concern for the ‘wealth of nations’ is deemed geographically mistaken, a ‘mercantilist tautology’ of looking at Economics through political lenses (Jacobs 1984, 32); Smith is a ‘philosopher’ with a concomitant Guardian mind set (Jacobs 1993/2016, 296). She argues ‘nations are political and military entities’ and not ‘the basic, salient entities of economic life’ (Jacobs 1984, 31). Because ‘most nations are composed of collections or grab bags of very different economies, rich regions and poor ones, within the same nation’ (p. 32) a one (national) policy fits all is ill-advised. The failures of such national economic policies from across the political spectrum (from various Marxisms to Keynesianism and monetarism) indicate current economic understanding to be a ‘fool’s paradise’ (p.3).

Jacobs’ ‘new way of understanding’ focuses on cities and their regions. Instead of beginning with factors of production – capital, labour, land – she brings work to centre stage, specifically old work and new work. The former is also termed ‘production work’, often efficiently executed by large organizations, whereas the latter is ‘development work’ largely a matter of trial and error where efficiency would be an inhibitor. This distinction is important because of the definition of economic development as adding new work to old work. And this process is overwhelmingly an urban phenomenon, or more specifically a feature of vibrant cities. It is in cities that new work is created either by innovations or, more commonly, through intermingling of innovations across cities resulting in imitations adapted to a particular city’s circumstances. Jacobs (1970) observed that creation of new work (i.e. development) occurs in bursts of urban vitality. This explosive growth of new work is the cumulative effect of import replacing, producing goods or services locally that had previously been imported (p. 146). Every good so produced results in ability to import new goods in lieu of those replaced; it is this import shifting combined with the import replacing that generates rapid economic development. Jacobs argues that this is ‘a process of immense, even awesome, economic force’ (p. 150). It only happens in cities; the outcome is increasingly intricate divisions of labour, a dynamic complex economy. In fact, for Jacobs it is this mechanism that defines a city as process producing a functioning economic entity in contrast to all other settlements – towns, villages, farms – that are economically inert in terms of development. Some cities experience just one or two economic spurts and then themselves stagnate; great cities are those that are able to generate a steady stream of such spurts. The latter prosper through their economic diversity as a habitat of entrepreneurship in contrast to economic specialization, the resulting efficiency of just old work being debilitating for entrepreneurship. Detroit is the classic example of eventual stagnation due to economic specialization. 

Thus Jacobs’ development model combines agglomerations of entrepreneurs within a city in economic contact with others of their ilk in other cities. In this formulation inter-city relations are as much cooperative as competitive. Thus the rise in cities in new regions is often the result of beneficial relations with an existing vibrant city; every great city has to start somehow and Jacobs (1970, 170-9) provides numerous examples such Venice building on its early links to Constantinople and New York on its early links to London. But once established in a region vibrant inter-city relations continue to be necessary for further city economic success. Jacobs’ provides two examples. Canada’s five ‘hub cities (Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal) require each other: ‘a hub city needs strong and many-faceted trading, information and other relationships with other hub cities’ (Jacobs (2001a/2016, 366). But perhaps more intriguingly, Jacobs (1984, 135-55) devotes a whole chapter to ‘Why backward cities need one another’. In this argument she highlights the dangers of cities in poor regions trading with richer cities because they can become mere transit places for goods to the more developed cities. To avoid this dependency relation Jacobs suggests initially promoting trade between less developed cities because they can better imitate each other’s innovations. More generally economic dependency afflicts large regions across the world reflecting the economic power of rich cities. In the last century and a half it has been the economic demand in rich cities that has shaped a worldwide economic geography of commodity and labour flows creating multiple supply regions; Jacobs describes these ‘stunted and bizarre economies in distant regions’ as ‘economic grotesques’ (p. 59). This is, of course, the complete opposite reasoning to classical Ricardian trade theory of comparative advantage.

So how have Economists reacted to this critical engagement? Although initially ignored, Jacobs’ ideas came to the fore but mainly in one limited area: economic growth theory (Nowlan 1997; Desroches and Hospers 2007); Froy (2018) describes a wider engagement. Jacobs’ work was introduced into Economics by Lucas (1988) and Romer (1986) as an externality resulting from agglomeration; these are now widely referred to as ‘Jacobs externalities’. She is accepted as an inspirational figure in the ‘new economic geography’ (Krugman 1995, 5) and urban economics (Glaeser 2011, 1). Lucas and Krugman are both Nobel Laureates in Economics.

Finally, as it can be seen through her economics, Jacobs brings the process of cities to the centre of her work. Harris (2011, 65) identifies this as an ‘obsession’ resulting in her overplaying the importance of cities: for Jacobs they are ‘not just a force but in many ways the force’ (p. 77-8, italics in original). He is correct; this is certainly an indictment from within conventional thinking, but for us it is a necessary release from state-centric thinking as required by our Declaration Three.

Glimpses of a History Narrative

Jacobs was an avid user of History. We have seen how she used anecdotes, many of them historical, to illustrate processes and how she has been criticised for this. Harris (2011, 65) likens Jacobs to a magpie collecting ‘flashy items’ in order to get ‘her reader’s attention’. And it certainly true that she offers us a wide range of short historical stories throughout her texts. In Economy of Cities these include in order of appearance: mid-nineteenth century San Francisco, an embryonic city in early Neolithic Anatolia, cities of the Mesopotamian civilization, nineteenth century British cities, twentieth century Detroit, cities of the Indus civilization, medieval Europe cities, early twentieth century Tokyo, Shakespeare’s London, ninth century Venice, classical Rome, and pre-classical Etruscan cities. There is no overall narrative; each makes a point in an unfolding argument. Henry Pirenne’s (1925/1969) account of the rise of early medieval commerce in Europe is a rare example of influence on Jacobs’ writing from her part-time college days (Zipp and Storring 2016a, 5; Laurence 2011, 19) and can be expanded to a wider narrative of Venice rather than Rome as the wellspring of modern Europe (Taylor 2013, 215-28), but Jacobs does not use him this way: each historical story is an economic puzzle to be explained.

Jacobs’ distain for narratives may be related to the way in which mega-concepts like ‘modern’ and ‘capitalism’ had distorted, in her view, how we understand the present. The narrative of ‘modern’ had been captured by the Moses to mean progress through destroying communities and the narrative of ‘capitalism’ had been captured by the Soviet Union to implement an equally malign version of progress as state economic planning. Given that these were two of Jacobs’ prime bête noirs the fact that she hardly ever uses either master concept for describing our present world is not surprising. Of course, this does not mean that she does not engage with modern thinkers: Lawrence (2016, 8) views Jacobs as a critic of ‘superficial modernism’ and Hirt (2012b, 37) describes her as providing ‘an exemplary critique’ of ‘high modernism’. Further, Hist emphasizes that she wanted to improve what was modern not reject it (p. 38). Certainly she appreciates modern science and technology and what it has enabled humanity to achieve (Jacobs 2004, 64-5), stemming from the European Enlightenment (p. 6). She rationalized her position by saying she was against ‘beating Reason and Science into cities’ while still appreciating a broader Reason and Science providing social improvements ‘given to beneficiaries fortunate enough to receive them’ (Jacobs 2004a/2016, 420-1) But this did not translate into placing our times into a special period, either modern or capitalist, separated from earlier periods, which are found wanting economically, culturally and politically. For Jacobs there is no process of ‘modernization’, no ‘transition from feudalism to capitalism’, rather we are ‘probably living in the last days of feudalism’ (Jacobs 2001b/2016, 378). An extraordinary statement considered from all conventional views (covering the wide spectrum from left-leaning to right-leaning histories), it does provide a glimpse of what a Jacobs’ historical narrative might look like.

Perhaps stimulated by Jared Diamond’s (1997) Guns, Germs and Steel, Jacobs planned an historical sequel to her last book Dark Age Ahead with her story of how we got to the negative position she portrayed, and to provide hope for a better outlook for humanity (Zipp and Storring 2016a, 349-51, 459). Provisionally titled A Short Biography of the Human Race, she died before developing the project and all we have is a fragment of its content in a speech delivered in 2004 (Jacobs 2004b/2016). She takes up Diamond’s argument that the development of agriculture ten to twelve thousand years ago created an uneven power struggle of agrarians against foragers that the latter won leading to a world of empires. However she departs from Diamond by emphasizing that ‘the powerhouses of agrarian supremacy were plantations’ (Jacobs 2004b/2016, 438]). This was the Plantation Age (referred to as ‘feudalism’ previously above), a production process that spread with empire:

Practices perfected in the vineyards and grain, flax, olive and almond plantations of the old world were transferred to other climates, as plantations for sugar, cotton, indigo, tea, coffee, cocoa, tobacco, coconuts, pineapples, rubber, opium poppies, peanuts, banana, spices, soybeans, and much else (Jacobs 2004b/2016, 439)

Three organizational precepts made plantations productive: (i) specialization creating a monoculture; (ii) large scale - larger being more efficient; and (iii) planned production outcomes to avoid unexpected end results (p. 444). The gradual demise of this plantation practice is to be found in Europe in the last thousands years but its influence extended deeply into industrialization. Mass production organized into large factories created the manufacturing monoculture of Manchester (“Cottonopolis”) in the nineteenth century (Jacobs 2004b/2014, 444-5) and as previously critiqued in Jacobs (1970) which was logically extended in the USA at the beginning of the twentieth century as ‘Taylorism’ (scientific management) to standardize working practices across manufacturing (and lives on in hugely influential management consultancy firms today) (p. 445). Plantation thinking extended to land planning/zoning and suburban construction from the mid-twentieth century (shades of Death and Life here - ’Modern suburbs are caricatures of plantations’ (p. 448)), and continues in today’s failing ‘global city’ skyscraper landscapes of a financial services urban monoculture today (pp. 448-9).

In her final interview Jacobs (2005/2016, 90) complains of the ‘sameness’ of contemporary urban landscapes, a global standardization of production, but this is not necessarily a threat to import replacement because it is old work; US cities continue to create new work. Finally, she declares ‘the Planation Age is no longer supreme’ (Jacobs 2004b/2014, 440). Very early signs of abandoning this monoculture mentality was found in fifteenth century European cities where both printers and publishers with little understanding of their new readership markets had to improvise through trial and error to succeed. Very slowly moving into other areas of the economy as ‘differentiated production’, this is a creative process of satisfying and even generating new markets for new products. If this transition is successful we will enter an ‘Age of Human Capital’ where Guardian behaviours of zero sum games between states (wars) gives way the Commercial behaviours of win-win transactions between cities (economics). Urban replaces agrarian just like the latter previously replaced forager: the optimism in this scenario is based upon Jacobs’ observation that ‘Land can be held exclusively’ (i.e. territorial monopoly power) whereas ‘Ingenuity cannot be’ (i.e. diffused network power).

One final point on this history: we know Jacobs’ take on the transition from foraging to agriculture from her notorious first chapter of Economy of Cities where she proposed cities came before farming rather than the conventional view that agricultural surplus in Mesopotamia enabled cities to emerge. The latter supply theory of city origins is entrenched in the disciplines of ancient history and archaeology and Jacobs (1970, 3-48) challenged it with an alternative demand theory: as small city networks emerged existing foragers could not keep up with increased food demand and agriculture was an urban invention to solve this problem. The latter idea was further developed by Soja (2000; 2010) and has been recently debated and disciplined (Taylor 2012, 2013, 2015; Smith et al. 2014: Ikeda 2018). For Jacobs’ historical narrative, this is the beginning of creative urban oases in an agrarian creative desert but whose numbers grow throughout the Plantation Age until in the twenty first century when urban dwellers finally become a majority of humanity. This new Age of Human Capital provides hope for the future based upon inherent myriad urban ingenuities.

Perplexing Politics?

There seems to be a consensus that Jacobs’ politics is hard to pin down (e.g. Page 2011, 4; Zipp and Storing 2016b, xxvii-xxix). In the Economics section above we found her rigorously endorsed by both Paul Krugman and Edward Glaeser whose respective economics are very far apart politically. Page (2011) is particularly exercised by the house in New York from which Jacobs famously observed the centrality of the street to vibrant city life - a central theme of Death and Life. But that was the 1950s, fast forward to 2009 and that very same house is on the market for $3.5 million. A fascinating anecdote, Jacobs seems to be hoisted by her own petard! This was a house she saved from Moses; Page (2011, 8-9) comments: ‘Without intending to, or perhaps without being able to see clearly enough into the future, she made the neighbourhood safe for $3.5 million town houses’. The indictment is that Jacobs’ celebrated community politics misses the wider political economy context in which housing markets based upon citywide or even international capital eventually trump local interests. Not being anchored into one of the traditional political tendencies has resulted in her misjudging a commonplace urban outcome.

If this indictment is correct it would make a complete mockery of Jacobs’ immense esteem as an urbanist; Morrone (2017) provides a detailed discussion of Jacobs in debates over gentrification. In fact she saw the dangers of neighbourhood success as ‘self-destruction of diversity’ even before the term “gentrification” was coined (Zipp and Storring 2016b, xxxvi). In Death and Life Jacobs is primarily concerned about ‘unslumming’, trying to prevent people moving out of neighbourhoods, the very opposite of gentrification. In her later life Jacobs understood gentrification initially as a positive process in moderation because it added to the diversity of a neighbourhood (Jacobs 2000/2016, 358). The problem was that as a dominant process is had exactly the opposite effect, clearing out diversity through rising property prices. Jacobs sees the irony that gentrification then becomes a futile process because it destroys the very variety that made a neighbourhood attractive in the first place (p. 359). A fully gentrified place is as socially sterile as twentieth century residential suburbs – they are the latest urban ‘plantations’. In the past such ‘boring’ places – rich ghettoes - eventually lost their attraction and therefore we might surmise the $3.5 million price tag is not the end of the story. But before neighbourhoods reach plantation-state Jacobs suggests several non-profit initiatives or ‘whatever ingenuities’ are available to maintain diversity (p. 360). This is what Zipp and Storring (2016b, viii) call her ‘pragmatic politics’; Szurmak and Desroches 2017, 18) also refer to her placing pragmatism over ideology. But it is still the case that Jacobs’ ideas sit ‘uneasily’ within radical politics (Zipp and Storring (2016b, xxvii).

Jacobs’ unusual politics derives directly from her distinctive economics. Conventional political groupings relate to the Capital/Labour/Land division of economic process; Jacobs’ focuses on old work/new work division of that process. The former produces different variations of continuing politics of class conflict; the latter implies a cyclical cross-class politics. Jacobs (1970, 248) considers class politics to be a ‘secondary kind of conflict’ situated within the realm of old work (production work) where ‘well organized workers’ share a common interest with their employers for their industry to prosper; the conflict is about dividing the spoils. It is secondary because it is conservative. This modus operandi is always threatened by new work (development work); it subverts the status quo. Thus:

‘The primary economic conflict is … between people whose interests are with already well-established economic activities, and those whose interests are with the emergence of new economic activities. This is a conflict that can never be put to rest except by economic stagnation.’ (Jacobs 1970, 249)

This produces sequences of cyclical political conflict based upon Kondratieff waves of innovation creating cross-class political interests coming to the fore during economic growth spurts. (Actually Jacobs does not directly focus on long economic cycles but when they are presented to her she finds them ‘very interesting’ and relates them to innovations. Therefore what follows is a slight extrapolation of her ideas (Jacobs 2002/2016 397-8).)) We can argue that these long cycles generate three sets of special interests (A) interests of those engaged in current development work; (B) interests of those engaged in production work from previous recent cycles of development work; and (C) interests of those engaged in production work from long distant development work many cycles ago. The latter are commonly referred to as people economically ‘left-behind’ in relatively stagnant cities and regions; they currently form the basis of cross-class populist politics (Taylor 2017). However, Jacobs’ (1970, 250) key point is that class politics from interest (B) typically dominates political practice because of its grounding in well-established organization advantage (political parties). Politics concerning interest (A) are typically unformulated – they come to ahead only later when they become an interest (B) – so that the crucial process in economic development is largely unrepresented in conventional politics. Now it should be clear why Jacobs ‘sits uneasy’ alongside conventional radical politics!

According to Zipp and Storring (2016b, xxxii) ‘Jacob’s vision is one of markets without capitalism’. This brings discussion back to the Commercial ethics syndrome that is explicitly about free markets. A key point is that, despite its name, Jacobs (1992, 28) excludes ‘commercial monopolies’, which are therefore allocated to the Guardian syndrome. Thus economic manipulation of supply and demand is grouped with state activities; therefore neighbourhoods can be threatened by both public (city planning) and private (aggressive gentrification) practices. More generally, she advocates taking on ‘powerful corporate interests and government monopolies’ (Jacobs 1994/2016, 327). But this also means opposing state aid to poorer regions identifying such policies as ‘transaction of decline’ because they maintain stagnation at the expense of creating new work, the latter being the only way of overcoming poverty (Jacobs 1984, 182-3). This extends to her opinion on the work of the World Bank: in a discussion with Bank employees Jacobs argues that since they can only provide investment via state agencies, and not directly to cities, ‘it’s questionable whether you ought to be doing anything’ (Jacobs 2002/2016, 404). But she is not anti-Guardian, although this syndrome includes ‘raiders’ and ‘takers’ it also covers necessary functions for a society and economy to work such as state monopoly of use of force (Jacobs 1993/2016, 307) and more generally the aristocratic ethic of stewardship.

So what is Jacobs’ politics? Linking it to her other activities makes it less perplexing – perhaps the question mark in the title of this section can be expunged – but difficulties remain. Her preference for small institutions, both public and private, suggests she is more anarchistic than socialist in her radicalism but such a label is hardly credible. The best description remains Zipp and Storring’s (2016b, viii) ‘pragmatic politics’. For instance, her promotion of markets is not market fundamentalism of the neo-liberal variety but rather recognition of entrepreneurs as creators of new work, development that eases poverty. Jacobs makes very practical suggestions about standard issues such as taxation: she is against value-added taxes because they favour large corporations with their in-house supply chains (no taxes) compared to small firms trading with other small firms (taxed on every transaction) (Jacobs 1984, 225-6; 1993/2016, 316). All her pragmatic politics relate to self-developing cities and how their innovative potential can be protected and encouraged ‘to creatively solve practical problems for themselves and each other’ (Jacobs 1970/2016, 219). Where this does not happen old work dominates, often with debilitating effects:

Creative cities prevent the same natural resources from being exploited too heavily and too long. It is stagnant economies that become ruinous to the natural world ‘(p. 220)

Jacobs coins the terms ‘undone and undeveloped work’ (p. 220) to describe this missing creative urban input of stagnant cities and gives automobile highways, congestion and pollution in cities as a transportation example of undone work (i.e. the multiple-cyclic old work of making cars has gone on for far too long).

Double Nature

The one idea that pervades Jacobs’ work over many decades is the idea of organized complexity as introduced in the Knowledge section above. However Jacobs has changed in the way she translates this systems thinking. Initially borrowed from the biological sciences, she was originally taking up the challenge to apply organized complexity in the social sciences (Jacobs 1961, 446). As late as 1992 she was referring to ‘two sorts of ecosystems – one created by nature, the other by human beings’ (Jacobs 1992/2016, 282). But in her The Nature of Economies (Jacobs 2000), the basic premise of the book ‘is that human beings exist wholly within nature as part of natural order in every respect’ (p. ix). In the otherwise comprehensive coverage of Jacobs’ ideas by Zipp and Storring (2016a) this work is conspicuous by its neglect – it is referenced only in footnotes, just six in total. But for the Jacobs’ legacy being developed here it is a vital source. To some extend it is an ecological rewriting and contextualising of The Economy of Cities (Jacobs 1970) but with much less attention given to its essential complementary volume Cities and the Wealth of Nations (Jacobs 1984).

Jacobs (2000) treats development as a universal process covering both inanimate and animate processes that create ‘significant qualitative change’ (p. 15). She posits this as the opposite of the commonly argued ‘“Thing Theory” of development’: ‘development is not a collection of things but rather a process that yields things’ (p. 32). She illustrates this by depicting natural ecosystems as conduits through which energy flows (pp. 46-7). In a tropical rain forest energy (sunlight) enters and is used in myriad reactions to create a dense, diversified environment. In contrast, in a desert this same energy flows through the ecosystem swiftly leaving little evidence of its passage. And so it is with cities. Like rain forests their imports are repeatedly converted, recycled, recombined to create a complex economy. In other settlements imports come in, are used in production of exports, and leave behind essentially simple economies (a company town with just its saw mills is an obvious example). The key point in ecosystems is that output from the conduit – what’s left over once process is complete (i.e. usually called waste) – is not the driver. Thus in a city economy it is not the exports that determine success: Jacobs’ theory of economics is one of increasing returns contrasting with conventional ‘national’ theory of economics that contrives diminishing returns (p. 63).

Diverse ecosystems are much more resilient than one crop plantations but they can still be vulnerable to collapse; they require what Jacobs (2000, 83) calls ‘dynamic stability’. Dynamic systems must continually correct themselves to evade collapse. Jacobs identifies four resources and methods for doing this: (i) bifurcations – where instabilities are so dangerous the only option is a radical change whereby an ecosystem develops into a new process; (ii) positive feedback loops – signals in the system trigger reinforcement of processes working well; (iii) negative feedback controls maintain balances within the system, the key self-organization of complexity; and (iv) emergency adaptations – addressing temporary instabilities that are nevertheless potentially devastating. City economies are ecosystems and therefore subject to these corrections, often having to react to misguided city government actions through their organized complexity. Thus Adam Smith’s dynamic price mechanism – the hidden hand of the market - triggers:

‘…  continual adjustments – by industry, labor, customers, landowners, and capital – create self-organized order out of volatile, uncoordinated, confusing, conglomerations of countless different enterprises  and individuals, narrowly pursuing countless picayune opportunities and their own interests’ (Jacobs 2000, 105-6).

But Jacobs diverges from Smith on the meaning of this process: instead of seeing the value of this economy diversification, the Economics profession came to herald economic specialization to promote ‘old work’ efficiency (p. 106-7).

For our purposes the most interesting part of Jacobs’ legacy is the penultimate chapter of The Nature of Economies entitled “The Double Nature of Fitness for Survival” (Jacobs 2000, 119-32). Survival in ecosystems is not just about the process of immediate reproduction – competitively procuring food, shelter and other materialist and non-materialist needs – but also cooperatively preserving the wider habitat, the encompassing material world. Jacobs gives the examples of large mammals (lions, elephants, chimpanzees) with more than enough power to destroy their habitats but who have developed behaviours to prevent this. The basic method is to restrict time allocated to hunting and foraging (e.g. sleeping, ‘play’, grooming, etc.). Jacobs asks the question ‘whether our species has inborn traits that restrain habitat destruction’ (p. 125) and answers it by speculating on the efficacy of several ancient cross-cultural restraints on habitat destruction such as awe of Nature (religions) (p. 128-9) and ‘corrective tinkering and contriving’ (p. 129-30). The latter, in particular, is integral to city economies but therein lies a problem. This key urban mechanism is only about ten thousand years old, not enough evolutionary time to become an inborn corrective (p. 131). Neither Smith’s ‘hidden hand’ nor Jacobs’ Commercial ethics syndrome offer any long-term constraining order.

So, we can accept that humans are part of Nature but that does not mean our species’ particularities are not delinquent when it comes to habitat maintenance: the Plantation Age is our track record in this respect. And the worrying aspect is the nature of our species particularity when it comes to the work of reproduction. As both Smith and Jacobs (1992, xi) observe, trading sets us apart from all other species. The latter use a local environment (a territory or trail) and this defines their habitat. Trading enables humans to exploit non-local environments for their reproduction, again epitomised by the Plantation Age. Humans’ habitat is large meaning out of direct experience so it is difficult to see what ecological corrective mechanisms could develop whatever the timeframe. For two centuries the human habitat has been global, although global-level effects may be much older than that. As we have seen Jacobs postulates the idea of an Age of Human Capital as the ‘second creative age’ (Zipp and Storring 2016b, xxxiv), grounded in urban ingenuities whereby cities are available to generate future solutions to humanity’s predicaments. And this is important, the standard ‘Green’ anti-growth arguments – curtailing city development – will make things worse by producing a world of stagnant cities, economies of old work using old technologies continually polluting more and more. Hope lies with vibrant cities: the crucial point is that although cities are originally the product of trading, their vitality is based upon ‘self-fuelling’: in current Green parlance to decrease humanity’s footprint on its global habitat. Thus we conclude where we started, on the nature of cities: ‘The city is an invention for maximising exchange and minimising trade’ (Register 2010, 218). This is the most crucial conclusion we get from Jacobs.

Fellow Travellers at the Jacobs Bar

We have presented a Jane Jacobs legacy that we think will help address the urgent issue of anthropogenic climate change. The first question is how is this to be done? This is difficult to answer but how this is not to be done is clear enough. Near the end of her life Jacobs gave a lecture at City College, New York, where she proclaimed:

“I don’t want disciples. My knowledge and talents are much too skimpy. The very last thing I would want is to limit other people with minds of their own … we need unlimited independent thinkers with unlimited scepticism and curiosity … I am serious about not wanting disciples.” Jacobs (2004b/2016, 458)

This is not an affected modesty of her later years but rather provides a strong hint of how she desired her legacy to unfold. She was an ever-curious independent thinker who encouraged curiosity in others to always challenge conventional thinking.

We aspire to be fellow travellers. In this concluding section we identify work of other fellow travellers that intersects with Jacobs ideas in some quite unexpected ways. There is only one Jane Jacobs in the literal sense of her specific life experiences, reactions, interpretations and practices but other scholars and activists have produced key ideas that relate to the various segments of her work detailed above. This crosscutting of different situated knowledges can add further substance to Jacobs’ ideas, providing perspectives perhaps beyond her ken. The ultimate purpose is to get the most we can from the oeuvre she has left us.

It is always thought provoking when scholars from quite different starting points come to similar conclusions. In urban studies a classic case is that Jacobs (1970, 50) and Castells (1996, 386), coming from completely different theoretical positions, both assert the rare proposition that cities should be viewed as process (Taylor 2006, 287). Such convergence acts as a sort of knowledge triangulation, it provides added confidence to contrarian ideas. The thirteen intersections with Jacobs’s ideas we present below are offered in this spirit (see Froy (2018) for a different set of intersections). For this chapter’s purposes we keep the discussion at a simple descriptive level just to illustrate a wider intellectual compasses into which Jacobs can be fitted. Figuratively this can be imagined as a watering hole for thinkers, Jacobs Bar, where scholars from different disciplines and political persuasion meet to discuss and compare ideas, and to plot protests. As a slayer of shibboleths, a thorn in the side of people who are certain, but ultimately offering humanistic positive thinking, Jacobs is the ideal bar owner to host contrarian discussion and actions. In this Bar, the decidedly odd, not to say outlandish, ideas and concepts which Jacobs developed are found to be not as idiosyncratic as first appear.

  • The ‘cities first’ thesis seems to have been universally rejected by archaeologists and therefore this is an unlikely source for knowledge intersections. However as well as ‘archaeological reality’ (Smith et al. 2014) there are also ‘archaeological illusions’ (Pauketat 2007). The latter more critical tradition does provide an intersection with Jacobs’ idea of cities being directly implicated in rapid prehistoric change. Pauketat (2007) calls this the ‘X factor’ where a mixing of local and foreign practices create new traits. Originally derived to describe cultural change he extends it to cover political change and brings cities into the argument (p.197) as ‘the X factor of urbanization’ (p. 186). However in his seminal work on Cahokia Pauketet (2004) does describe an economic basis for rapid urban change that has been interpreted as a ‘perfect’ replication of Jacobs’ process (Taylor 2013, 143).
  • Expect the unexpected is the odd advice Jacobs offers to researchers if they are to engage in new knowledge building. This is an example of her distrust of conventional certainties and those ‘experts’ who hold them. But in studies of climate risk uncertainty is endemic and therefore has to be integrated into decision-making (O’Brien and O’Keefe 2014, 62). More generally, according to Funtowicz and Ravetz (1991) we are living in an era of exceptionally complex problems that require ‘post-normal science’ awash with uncertainties, and requiring rethinking of old ‘certainties’ like progress, modernization and efficiency (Sardar 2010).
  • Markets without capitalism does not seem to make sense and therefore is in urgent need of triangulation. And this comes from Fernand Braudel’s (1981, 23-6) framework for his world history based upon three levels of activity: everyday life at the base, commercial markets in the middle, and capitalism at the top, the latter including both states and corporations. Clearly the latter two levels relate to Jacobs’ Commercial and Guardian work syndromes. Immanuel Wallerstein (1991, 206) interprets Braudel’s framework as ‘markets versus capitalism’ so that, for him, Jacobs’ markets without capitalism actually represent socialism.
  • Poor cities need one another is the opposite of trickle down development economics. This is exactly the same message of the radical dependency school led by Gunder Frank (1969) who argues that the unequal relations between rich and poor countries keeps the latter poor, a process he famously called the development of underdevelopment. The practical implication of this has been argued by Samir Amin ((1990) as ‘de-linking’ of countries and cities from the world-economy to enable a fair rebalancing of their local economies with like economies.
  • Debunking the ‘industrial revolution’ has been a common topic since the de-industrialization of rich countries made equating ‘modern society’ with ‘industrial society’ problematic. But Jacobs’ going back a thousand years? The transition to modernity and/or capitalism is pushed back to c.1450 in Wallerstein’s (1974) world-systems analysis and Janet Abu-Lughod (1989) goes back to the thirteenth century but Jacobs takes it back to the beginnings of Europe’s ‘commercial revolution’ described by Pirenne (1924/1969); this is empirically justified in Taylor (2013, 223-8, 240-3). But Jacobs finds the first examples of differentiated production in the fifteenth century, which does coincide with Wallerstein’s transition to a modern world-system. 
  • The curious idea of an Age of Plantation, that Jacobs says we have been living through, is brilliantly portrayed by James Scott (1998) where he compares the modern city planner’s practices to the order created by scientific forestry with its logic of uniformity and regimentation (pp. 140-1, 184). Later he compares the city modernists as akin to a ‘Taylorist factory’ (p. 348). The disorder of the growing city counteracted the state’s need for legibility, which is consistent with Jacobs’ Guardian syndrome, and leads to broadly anti-city practices to rule these unruly places. Of course, the greatest modern plantation builders were the communist states in the twentieth century; from Lenin to Mao they curtailed city growth and thereby stymied economic development in a promotion of old work, plantation-style (Davidovich 1974, 627-9; Lin 2002).
  • Present condition and future change are treated by Jacobs as an urban-led transition, possibly requiring a societal bifurcation in escaping from plantation thinking. The latter includes ‘industrial’ mass production and Manuel Castells (1996) has a very similar formula of moving from “Industrial Society’ based upon spaces of places to a ‘Knowledge Society’ based upon spaces of flows. And for Wallerstein (1991, 146-7) we are entering a period of ‘kairos’ - decision time for humanity – when the modern world-system necessarily faces bifurcation, creating a different new society.
  • The reckoning of traditional economic thinking has become a key element in contemporary scepticism of elites and their way of seeing the world. Contemporary globalization has pushed cities to the fore as nodes in economic flows in contrast to traditional economic models of ‘national economies’ (Taylor et al 2010). More generally the state-centrism of the social sciences have been widely critiqued (Taylor 1996; Agnew 1993) but there has been no direct overlap with Jacobs; for instance, trade continues to be studied as ‘international’ despite growing proportions being intra-corporate. ‘Free trade’ remains a shibboleth despite some green challenges and populist reactions.
  • Economics as ecology is Jacobs’ (2000) most profound engagement with Economics and is used by Gibson-Graham (2008, 625) as a particularly creative example of knowledge making by bringing together different fields to generate ideas that could not otherwise be known. The resulting complex ecological thinking is identified as a contribution to finding alternative new economic possibilities outside capitalism. More generally, Jacobs’ promotion of innovative small-scale economic process is wholly compatible with Gibson-Graham’s envisioning of alternative economies to capitalism.
  • The reckoning of traditional party systems is similarly widely appreciated, especially the demise of centre-left parties, the main legitimating element of liberal democracy. In the USA Packer (2013) calls this stark new world of winners and losers ‘The Unwinding’. The rise of populism in recent elections confirms the needs to include Jacobs’ political dynamics into electoral analysis (Taylor 2017). On the other hand Jacobs’ introduction of dynamic stability invites basic economic thinking both radical, such as creative destruction, and conventional, such as product cycles, into political analysis.  
  • Reconnecting cities to nature has taken several forms but most have focused on the energy efficiency of compact, dense urban settlement. Hence, ‘New York is the greenest community in the United States’ (Owen 2009, 2). This statement was meant to shock because cities traditionally are viewed as the obverse of Nature, places where ecologies are obliterated by humans. Beyond simple density effects, we now find Jacobs’ city process ideas becoming commonplace: learning in cities from environmental problems to produce innovation (Brugmann 2009, 33), and the changing behaviour within cities reducing population growth (Brand 2010, 51).
  • Bottom-up knowledge in adaptation to disasters is critical to dealing with the inevitable ‘produced unknowns’ (O’Brien and O’Keefe 2014, 99). Post-event, resilience should not be about ‘bouncing back’ to a pre-disaster situation but rather ‘bouncing forward’ as reaction to a changed reality, building a social transformation (pp. 138-9). This is recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2012). Piecing together a new world from a destroyed old world is dependent on local knowledges of survivors working in a holistic manner dealing with all aspects of change - economic, social, cultural – simultaneously and requiring a very pragmatic politics: needs must.
  • Bottom-up knowledge and research, finally, should not be ignored. As an activist, Jacobs is automatically orientated from below in challenges to authority. But this did not have to be extended into her research methods but it was. In Death and Life she refers to ‘foot people’, those she observed in the street as ‘collaborators in the research’; she is very clear on this, local people did not ‘influence’ her, they collaborated (Jacobs 1992/2016, 277). This is entirely in the spirit of participatory action research where there are no ‘subjects’ in the investigation; rather people are ‘producers of knowledge in the research process’ (Askins and Pain 2011, 806).

And so Jacobs’ ideas are not so odd or different as often assumed; she was an original thinker to be sure but her works should never be quarantined. The list above obviously reflects our particular range of research interests; we invite readers to find other fellow travellers beyond our ken. But in complete contrast, note that we have not mentioned organised complex systems in the above list. This is because Jacobs is recognised as the social science pioneer in this crucial area. That is to say, it is much more than a crosscutting involving a few selected scholars. Her position has itself become conventional as complexity studies are part of the mainstream of today’s social science (Wallerstein et al. 1996; Byrne 1998; Batty 2013)) and in relation to climate change (O’Brien and O’Keefe 2014). However we will conclude with reference to Jacobs’ frustration in regard to the discipline of Economics not responding to clear empirical evidence of rapid economic growth occurring through cities. We feel exactly the same way in regard to the social sciences’ overall weak responses to anthropogenic climate change. The Declarations, especially their tone, were born of this frustration.


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* Peter J. Taylor, Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe, Northumbria University, email:


Edited and posted on the web on 26th March 2018; last update 11th September 2018

Note: This Research Bulletin is a draft chapter from Peter J Taylor, Geoff O’Brien and Phil O’Keefe forthcoming book Jane Jacobs and Anthropogenic Climate Change.