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Jane Jacobs: The Spontaneity of Cities


Lovers of freedom, cities, and spontaneous social processes lost a great champion April 25 when Jane Jacobs died at age 89. She was truly a remarkable woman. With no more than a high-school diploma, but also a keen eye for what other people miss and the ability to turn a phrase, she single-handedly demolished orthodox urban planning in the United States. To the “planner knows best” advocates she responded, People living their everyday lives know better. In other words, The Plan should not be allowed to overrule people’s own plans.

Jacobs saw and clearly described what The Plan had wrought: segregation of residences from commercial activity, sterile housing projects, dangerous streets, dull communities, lifeless cities. As she wrote in her landmark first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961),

There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend — the figure is usually put at a hundred billion dollars — we could wipe out all our slums in ten years, reverse decay in the great, dull, gray belts that were yesterday’s and day-before-yester-day’s suburbs, anchor the wandering middle class and its wandering tax money, and perhaps even solve the traffic problem.

But look what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums, who have fewer choices of loitering place than others. Commercial centers that are lackluster imitations of standardized suburban chain-store shopping. Promenades that go from no place to nowhere and have no promenaders. Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

After debunking the vaunted wisdom of urban planners, she detailed why cities work when left free. Dense concentrations of people who are essentially strangers in a commercial environment produce unique mixes of ideas, innovation, and uses of property. The result is the life of the city. Moreover, this vitality creates safety: virtually round-the-clock activity puts “eyes upon the street” and creates a desire and incentive to maintain security. The planners’ approach looked almost as though it was intended to make places unsafe, with its separation of residences and businesses and its housing projects that turned people away from the streets.

Jacobs’s book is not dry theorizing. She saw and described the real life the bureaucrats were blind to. She could revel in a vibrant and safe part of a city, only to be told by a planner that the area is a slum to be avoided. Her work brims with personal observation and experience. Here’s a characteristic passage, illustrating how in a functioning city, strangers look out for other strangers as a matter of course:

A lively street always has both its users and pure watchers. Last year I was on such a street in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, waiting for a bus. I had not been there longer than a minute, barely long enough to begin taking in the street’s activity of errand goers, children playing, and loiterers on the stoops, when my attention was attracted by a woman who opened a window on the third floor of a tenement across the street and vigorously yoo-hooed at me. When I caught on that she wanted my attention and responded, she shouted down, “The bus doesn’t run here on Saturdays!” Then by a combination of shouts and pantomime she directed me around the corner. This woman was one of thousands upon thousands of people in New York who casually take care of the streets. They notice strangers. They observe what’s going on. If they need to take action, whether to direct a stranger waiting in the wrong place or to call the police, they do so. Action usually requires, to be sure, a certain self-assurance about the actor’s proprietorship of the street and the support he will get if necessary…. But even more fundamental than the action and necessary to the action is the watching itself.

Spontaneity, diversity, and safety

This goes to the heart of Jacobs’s view of the spontaneity of cities. People like to observe other people. A naturally developing neighborhood would mix uses of property and so would stimulate activity throughout the day and night. People would be on the streets, which means that other people who live on those streets would have a reason to be watching. This creates safety. No one, she told us, watches a vacant street, which leaves it to the hoodlums.

A city is greater than the sum of its parts. She wrote,

The trust of a city street is formed over time from many, many little public sidewalk contacts. It grows out of people stopping by at the bar for a beer, getting advice from the grocer and giving advice to the newsstand man, comparing opinions with other customers at the bakery and nodding hello to the two boys drinking pop on the stoop….

Most of it is ostensibly utterly trivial but the sum is not trivial at all. The sum of such casual, public contact at a local level — most of it fortuitous, most of it associated with errands, all of it metered by the person concerned and not thrust upon him by anyone — is a feeling for the public identity of people, a web of public respect and trust, and a resource in time of personal or neighborhood need. The absence of this trust is a disaster to a city street. Its cultivation cannot be institutionalized. And above all, it implies no private commitments. [Emphasis in original.]

Again, the planners are too busy with their lovely models to accord weight to the small unofficial encounters that add up to so much.

Jacobs’s passion for cities prompted her to explore their origins and prerequisites. Her investigation surprised even herself. In her second book, The Economy of Cities (1969), she wrote,

One of many surprises I found in the course of this work was especially unsettling because it ran counter to so much I had always taken for granted. Superficially, it seemed to run counter to common sense and yet there it was: work that we usually consider rural has originated not in the countryside, but in cities. Current theory in many fields — economics, history, anthropology — assumes that cities are built upon a rural economic base. If my observations and reasoning are correct, the reverse is true: that is, rural economies, including agricultural work, are directly built upon city economies and city work….

The most thoroughly rural countries exhibit the most unproductive agriculture. The most thoroughly urbanized countries, on the other hand, are precisely those that produce food most abundantly….

Rural work — whether that work is manufacturing brassieres or growing food — is city work transplanted.

Principled activism

Jane Jacobs was not just a keen observer and a colorful advocate. She was an activist who was willing to commit herself to stopping the destruction of neighborhoods by planners and wheelers and dealers. As the New York Times noted in its obituary,

Ms. Jacobs did not limit her impact to words. In 1961, she and other screaming protesters were removed by the police from a City Planning Commission hearing after they had leapt from their seats and rushed the podium. In 1968, she was arrested on charges of second-degree riot and criminal mischief in disrupting a public meeting on the construction of an expressway, which would have sliced across Lower Manhattan and displaced hundreds of families and businesses. The police said she had tried to tear up the stenographer’s transcript tape….

In his tribute to Jacobs, economist Sandy Ikeda wrote recently,

[She] relentlessly fought, and ultimately defeated, the plan of the powerful master-build-er of New York, Robert Moses, to carve a freeway through the heart of what is now the vibrant Soho district of lower Manhattan.

She was a woman of high integrity. As the Times pointed out,

Ms. Jacobs moved to Toronto [from Greenwich Village] in 1968 out of opposition to the Vietnam War and to shield her two draft-age sons from military duty. But she quickly enlisted in Toronto’s urban battles. No sooner had she arrived than she led a battle to stop a freeway there.

Jacobs was not an advocate of laissez faire. For instance, she saw a role for some zoning in behalf of, rather than against, diverse uses. What makes her important for libertarians is her realization that cities have an “underlying order” that is discernable if one looks for it. “Most city diversity,” she wrote,

is the creation of incredible numbers of different people and different private organizations, with vastly differing ideas and purposes, planning and contriving outside the framework of public action. The main responsibility of city planning and design should be to develop — insofar as public policy and action can do so — cities that are congenial places for this great range of unofficial plans, ideas, and opportunities to flourish…. [Emphasis added.]

Jacobs’s work will inspire for many generations to come.

This article originally appeared in the July 2006 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.