Jane Jacobs

How Jane Jacobs Challenged the Centralized Urban Planning Groupthink

The death and life of a great American urbanist


Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, edited by Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring, Random House, 490 pages, $28

Random House

Jane Jacobs was fatal to conventional wisdom. In her books, articles, and activism, she destroyed the 20th century urban planning groupthink and laid out a radically different way of thinking about cities and society—one that rejected the prescriptive and centralized approach that dominated the planning profession, and one that instead highlighted how decentralized, market-driven decisions lay the foundation for vibrant and sustainable cities.

A journalist rather than an academic, Jacobs worked regular gigs at Iron Age and Architectural Forum and contributed to popular magazines such as Vogue and Harper's. By the time she took a leave of absence from Architectural Forum to write what remains her most iconic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs was already starting to acquire a reputation as a fierce critic of conventional top-down planning.

She was not opposed to planning per se. Indeed, she believed small-scale plans were vital to cities' sustenance. Neighborhood parks were essential to urban vitality, for example, and their location required planning to be successful. But to work, planning—and governance in general—needed to be devolved to the neighborhood level, moving away from large-scale systems that concentrate authority and power. Jacobs was thus an ardent critic of regional planning and regional government. Regionalizing, or "amalgamating," made city government too far removed from the governed.

That's just one of the themes found in Vital Little Plans, a rich, provocative, and insightful collection of 38 of Jacobs' papers, speeches, and interviews. Jacobs was not a particularly prolific author; she published just a handful of books over a career that spanned more than half a century. With this anthology, published a decade after her death, editors Samuel Zipp and Nathan Storring—a historian and an urban designer, respectively—fill in much more of the picture.

What shines through in Jacobs' earliest writings here (including a poem published in the New York Herald Tribune in 1935) is her uncanny ability for inductive empirical analysis—for using data to formulate more general ideas about cities and how they worked. Rather than focusing on regional or macroeconomic abstractions, her observations literally remain at the street level, whether observing the origins and patterns of manhole covers (in Cue magazine) or the greenhouses and shops of New York's wholesale flower district at 28th Street and Sixth Avenue (in Vogue). In "Diamonds in the Tough" (Vogue, 1936), Jacobs describes the Bowery as a "squalid section" of New York where 70 percent of the world's unredeemed jewelry is pawned, bought, and sold. She makes it clear that this diamond center emerged spontaneously through the voluntary interactions of buyers and sellers, not because some agency designated the block as a precious stone district. "No one seems to know why this location was chosen or why the district continues here," she writes. Such observations about how the city works would become essential for Death and Life of Great American Cities.

During the 1950s and '60s, Jacobs used her position at Architectural Forum to examine urban development and redevelopment. Though the magazine championed modernist city planning, Jacobs emerged as one of modern planning's chief critics during her stint there. Her journey from urban observer to planning critic began, as Zipp and Storring point out, as she examined how buildings, and then cities, worked rather than how they looked or were designed to function.

In the process, she started to develop her critique. "Philadelphia's Redevelopment: A Progress Report" (July 1955) reviews the city's redevelopment plans for 10,000 blighted acres. The city avoided large-scale slum clearing—what economist Martin Anderson would call "the federal bulldozer" a few years later—but still targeted large swaths of land for redevelopment using "a busybody concern with what private developers will be up to next." (It wasn't all bad, though: She lauded the city for incorporating some neighborhood features that reinforce such institutions as churches, schools, and playgrounds.) Another Forum column discusses the difference between "pavement pounders"—planners who walk around cities and neighborhoods to get a feel for the urban fabric and dynamic—and "Olympians," those who plan based on maps and statistics. Her appreciation for small businesses as the glue that holds neighborhoods together comes out in "The Missing Link in City Redevelopment" (June 1956), where she laments the tendency to think of businesses merely as storefronts or spaces, not as enterprises that also serve as social centers and community anchors.

These street-level observations and critiques became the foundation of a larger view of cities and their social role. To break them into component parts, whether by economic activity or by demographic characteristics, misses the dynamic and organic nature of urban areas. In several essays, as well as in her books The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), she explored that bigger picture.

One of Jacobs' central ideas is "import substitution," a phrase that had fallen out of favor among economists of the '70s and '80s. She argued that cities grow by producing goods and services, using local production in lieu of importing them from other places. This turns comparative advantage on its head, and it might explain why her theories of urban development never seemed to resonate with conventional urban and regional economists. Skepticism toward import substitution as economic policy was well-founded by the 1970s. Nations that had turned to import substitution as national policy found their economies in shambles, while places that focused on exports—notably Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, and South Korea—grew at impressive rates.

Yet an important distinction exists between how import substitution is practiced in cities and how it was adopted on a national scale. For Jacobs, import substitution was an organic, bottom-up process that relied on multitudes of actors making decisions about how labor, capital, and land are combined to increase productivity. By contrast, when India or various Latin American nations embraced import substitution, they used top-down, centralized plans to force substitutions with little regard for relative productivity, prices, or effects on entrepreneurship. For Jacobs, new goods and services would be produced locally in cities only when market efficiencies allowed it to happen, and this organic import substitution was an indicator of economic vitality and success. Most of this economic activity bubbled up from the ground level as small businesses expanded into larger businesses and as jobs developed through the addition of "new work" on top of "old work." Cities could rarely, if ever, replace these decentralized decisions through comprehensive planning.

The final section of the book contains Jacobs' essays from the 1990s, which continue to emphasize her belief that cities, particularly large cities, are crucial to economic and cultural survival. But by then she questioned the likelihood of sustained urban growth. She saw more and more constraints on entrepreneurship hampering cities' ability to be ongoing centers for wealth creation and civilization. Without decentralized, spontaneous, entrepreneurial development, she warned, the future of national economies is also less assured. National governments, she said in one interview, "often are afraid of cities" because "economic development always upsets the status quo, and it does this first in cities."

Unlike many high-minded theorists, Jane Jacobs was an inductive researcher. Her touchstones were the ways people actually live in cities and the ways they take advantage of the opportunities that cities create. By rooting her work in empirical observation, she ensured its lasting value: Human beings would have to fundamentally change before her insights would lose their worth.