Free Minds & Free Markets

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 HouseRandom HouseJane 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.

Photo Credit: The LIFE Images Collection/Getty

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  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Jane Jacobs is the very archetype of the bottom-up spontaneous emergent order which universities sneer at. A hundred bureaucrats with degrees in central planning haven't got a tenth the wisdom and insight of Jane Jacobs.

  • JFree||

    I had heard of her before this article but only vaguely. She sounds like exactly the sort of person who libertarians should read if they want to effect change at the local level as the first step to being taken seriously. A good antidote to the top-down libertarianism of Cato/Reason/etc which has led nowhere.

  • Robert||

    Now, see, that is bottom-up development!

  • MarkLastname||

    What exactly is 'top-down' about Cato or Reason's approach?

  • Crusty Juggler > You||

    OT: How was Kushner, Trump Jr, and Manafort to know-oh that she was with the Russians, too?

    the Trump team's initial strategy of dismissing the Veselnitskaya meeting as an introductory chat about adoption quickly evolved to speculating something far more sinister: that the president's most trusted advisor, the chairman of his campaign, and the man in charge of running his extensive business interests were all duped by the Russkis, the result of a nefarious Democratic operation meant to use Kremlin operatives to sink the Trump campaign.

    "We have learned from both our own investigation and public reports that the participants in the meeting misrepresented who they were and who they worked for," Mark Corallo, spokesperson for Trump's outside counsel, said in a statement released a few hours after the original New York Times story published.

    "Specifically, we have learned that the person who sought the meeting is associated with Fusion GPS, a firm which according to public reports, was retained by Democratic operatives to develop opposition research on the president and which commissioned the phony Steele dossier," Corallo continued, referring to the strategic intelligence firm hired by anti-Trump Republicans, then by Democrats, to do opposition research on the candidate.
  • Crusty Juggler > You||

    It's like peeling an onion made from hoodwinks and hijinks.

  • Don't look at me.||

    A perfect example of why we cannot allow ourselves to have people making a living of politics. Vote everyone out every time.

  • Number 7||

    "If Corallo's suppositions were true..."

    Doesn't this sound like the same shit CNN and others have peddled for months- speculation, maybes, and could bes.

  • Crusty Juggler > You||

    Jane Jacobs fought the poop-face Robert Moses to save Greenwich Village, which is admirable, but by fighting that fight she probably saved the Beat movement, and that is inexcusable.

  • Charles Easterly||

    First you mention onions and next the Beat movement.

    Here is the relevant portion of an < a href = ""> "inexcusable" cartoon for you.

    (For your own sanity I recommend not watching past the 3:17 mark, if you can stand it that long)

  • Charles Easterly||

    Oops: Try this

  • Crusty Juggler > You||


  • ||

    Just a question what did you do wrong that caused the link not to work?

  • Tamfang||

    Neglected to close it, I think.

  • GlenchristLaw||

    Jane Jacobs' theories are like your high beams: They might be helpful when you're lost in the dark, but on a normal day they serve no function.

  • Sevo||

    GlenchristLaw|7.9.17 @ 10:19AM|#
    "Jane Jacobs' theories are like your high beams: They might be helpful when you're lost in the dark, but on a normal day they serve no function."

    Too clever by half; WIH is that supposed to mean?

  • phandaal||

    I don't think he knows what it means... If you read her works it's apparent that Jane Jacobs correctly identified many of the conditions that facilitate thriving cities. She wasn't a Libertarian, but that doesn't mean she was always wrong.

  • DenverJ||

  • Charles Easterly||

    Nice selection to make your point(s), DenverJ.

    One of the comments for the picture reminded me of Rodney Carrington because, well, it was quoted from Rodney Carrington: "I'd like to shake your daddy's hand."

    (He is referencing the young lady at this point in the video.

    If you're not into the brevity thing I can recommend the entirety of Carrington's "Show Them To Me" skit for the moment he waxes patriotic on the audience.

  • Charles Easterly||

  • Ride 'Em||

    Urban renewal another terrible LBJ program. It literally destroyed cities like New Haven CT. Where it tore down ethnic neighborhoods, divided the city with highways and caused the so called "white flight". Because of the people moving out, the tax base crumbled and the city struggled to provide basic services. It was sad.

  • Sevo||

    In SF, we get to blame LBJ's minion Justin Herman.
    He ED'd pretty much an entire middle-class (largely black) neighborhood, in effect moving them to Hunter's Point (the only neighborhood they could afford with Herman's payouts), and built several high-rise 'projects' where the residents were frightened to get on the elevator.
    They were torn down 15 years ago.

  • Number 7||

    and he gets a plaza named after him

  • Longtobefree||

    Every guillotine needs a place to be - - - -

  • Robespierre Josef Stalin||

    I liked living near Valencia Gardens when I lived in SF a couple years back. It had the benefit that not everyone that lived there looked like a Zuckerberg clone or some hipster douche with a beard. I guess there are some actual public housing projects that don't look like Pruitt-Igor. What a surprise... blanket denunciations of public sector projects have caveats. Wow!

  • Sevo||

    What a surprise! Snobbish lefty twit loves sticking prols in cages!

  • Rhywun||

    I hated living near the projects when I lived in SF (Western Addition). Despite being low-rise, they were still obviously projects and obviously an instant slum (to quote a favorite JJ phrase).

  • Longtobefree||

    But LBJ and a bunch of other democrats got a lot of votes and money, so it was worthwhile.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    Urban renewal started long before LBJ, in the 1930s at least.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    But enough about the Nazis.

  • Libertarian||

    You know who else kept bringing up the Nazis?

  • DenverJ||


  • Tamfang||

    Nazis' mothers?

  • Libertarian||

    OT as hell. I've never used the phrase "fucking awesome", but here is a pre-show crowd at a Green Day concert, singing Bohemian Rhapsody.

  • Charles Easterly||

    I doubted the veracity of that video throughout (and afterward). I thought it was a hoax perpetuated by some joker.

    Thus I looked around. I found this.

    (Interestingly, there's a girl dressed like Harley Quinn at the 3:54 mark, lower left corner)

  • phandaal||

    I would encourage anyone interested in urban development (as in, how cities grow and flourish and how they can be affected by central planning) to read The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

    It's a fascinating book and showcases Jacobs' commitment to observing the world as it is, not how she might want it to be. She's not a Libertarian hero, but she was an extremely intelligent and honest person.

  • Stephdumas||

    Paul Joseph Watson of *cough cough*Infowars*cough cough* posted a vlog about modern architecture.


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