Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs, RIP


Jane Jacobs died this morning at age 89. She was, in her heterodox, anti-ideological, relentlessly empirical way, one of the greatest libertarians of the last century. She was also an excellent writer, a serious scholar who approached her subjects with the sharp eye and clear prose of a good journalist.

All her books are worth a look, and the first two, 1961's The Death and Life of Great American Cities and 1969's The Economy of Cities, are essential reading. The first explores the communities that emerge from the interactions of ordinary people, and defends those concrete places against the abstract, destructive dreams of urban planners. The second offers a bold perspective on why cities emerge, grow, and decline. Not content just to observe and write, she became an activist as well, first battling the depradations of Robert Moses and then, after she moved from New York to Toronto, helping block an expressway and otherwise joining the fight to protect the city's neighborhoods.

Warren Gerard has written an excellent obit for her in the Toronto Star. Here's an excerpt:

Mrs. Jacobs was seen by many of her supporters—mistakenly—as left-wing. Not so.

Her views embraced the marketplace, supported privatization of utilities, frowned on subsidies, and detested the intrusions of government, big or small.

Nor was she right-wing. In fact, she had no time for ideology.

"I think ideologies, no matter what kind, are one of the greatest afflictions because they blind us to seeing what's going on or what's being done," she was quoted.

"I'm kind of an atheist," she said. "As for being a rightist or a leftist, it doesn't make any sense to me. I think ideologies are blinders."

Reason interviewed Jacobs in 2001, and named her one of our "35 heroes of freedom" two years later. One of my earliest articles for the magazine, way back in 1998, was an appreciation of her work that doubled as an attack on the ways it is sometimes misinterpreted.

Here's one of my favorite Jacobs quotes, from her 1984 book Cities and the Wealth of Nations:

The first successful railroad in the world was an amusement ride in London. Many of us can remember when plastics were used for little except toys and kitchen gadgets, and for piano keys as a lower-cost replacement for ivory. Tennis rackets, golf clubs and fishing rods afforded the first uses of strong, lightweight composites of plastics reinforced with fibers of glass, boron and carbon; now those composites are starting to replace metals in some construction products, some types of springs, pipelines, and aircraft and automobile parts. Computer games preceded personal computers for workaday use. For years before artificial voices were being incorporated into computerized work tools to call out the temperatures of equipment or to sound explanatory warnings, they were being used in computerized toys and gimmickry for children (e.g., "Speak and Spell") and were being prematurely written off by "serious" developers and users of computers as cute but useless. In my own city today I notice that solar heating is largely a passion of hobbyists, as is drip irrigation, which conserves labor, fertilizer, water and space in home vegetable gardening.

"All big things grow from little things," [Cyril Stanley] Smith comments, "but new little things are destroyed by their environments unless they are cherished for reasons more like esthetic appreciation than practical utility."

We can cherish Jacobs' books for both reasons.