Jane Jacobs, one of the last great public intellectuals, passed away earlier this week at the age of 89. Jacobs was an extraordinarily insightful writer who anticipated many of the themes that have become foundations for contemporary social analysis – complex adaptive systems, emergence, social capital and social networks, just to name a few.
Martin Wolf and Jeff Pruzan in their obituary on Jacobs in the Financial Times capture her power:
A genius – no other word will do – she had the defining quality of any brilliant intellect: the ability to look at the world in a fresh way. She had the knack of asking illuminating questions and coming up with perceptive, original, compelling and above all correct, answers. Despite her lack of formal training she educated even Nobel prize-winning economists.
But she had more than insight – she had passion. She fought for what she believed in, including getting arrested in demonstrations against urban renewal and the draft and emigrating from the country she loved to help her sons avoid the draft during the Vietnam War.
Jane Jacobs loved cities, a passion that I have expressed here, here and here. Much of her writing – especially the triad of her books, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) – compellingly describes why cities are so important. Her first book explores the dynamics that shape city life and make it so rich, as well as providing a devastating critique of urban planners that seek to impose conceptions of order and, in the process, smother the very elements that make cities so vibrant. In the words of Sandy Ikeda, she seeks to explain “how cities full of strangers manage to achieve the high level of social cooperation needed to consistently generate their own economic growth.”
Her second book challenged the conventional view that the development of cities depended on agriculture and instead argued that the development of agriculture depended upon cities. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, Jacobs argued that macroeconomics had focused on the wrong unit of analysis – the source of wealth was not nations, but cities. In fact, as the New York Times in their obituary of Jacobs summarized the theme of her book: “She contended that national governments undermine the economy of cities, which she sees as the natural engines of economic growth.”
Nathan Torkington in his posting about Jacobs’ passing points to a interesting overview of Jacobs’ writing about cities. A broader view of her life and writing is available here.
As you read Jane Jacobs, you begin to appreciate that her love of cities stems from an even deeper love, a love of people. Cities are so important for Jacobs because she views cities as powerful environments enabling people to realize their fullest potential.
I have often been asked how I can reconcile my love of cities with my view that most interesting things happen at the edge. After all, aren’t cities at the core and edges out in the rural areas? Well, that view ignores the real power of cities as outlined by Jacobs – edges of all kinds proliferate and converge in cities. The diversity of populations and activities and the concentration of people combine to generate enormous productive friction.
That productive friction can be either amplified or dampened by how we develop our cities. Jacobs is a powerful proponent of spontaneous order in cities and deeply insightful about the interplay between urban design and social interaction. Her work was in part the inspiration for the notion of performance fabrics that JSB and I develop in The Only Sustainable Edge. Performance fabrics support and amplify extended relationships by weaving together both technology architectures (or, in the case of Jacobs, urban architecture) and techniques for building shared meaning and trust.
In our terms, Jacobs was describing the performance fabrics that give cities their power as centers of innovation and economic growth. To quote Sandy Ikeda again:
One of Jacobs’s principal contributions to our understanding of cities as spontaneous orders is her insight that safety and ultimately trust depends to a surprisingly high degree on the structure and location of public spaces and that the relations that emerge spontaneously from a secure foundation of trust support essentially self-ordering processes of discovery and economic growth. . . A great city is a spontaneous order par excellence: a self-ordering, self-regulating, and self-sustaining phenomenon, the overall characteristics of which evolve over time without the need for deliberate human design.
Her work on cities was – and remains – path-breaking, but Jacobs also wrote a wonderful book, Systems of Survival (1994), which powerfully contrasts the tension between “commercial syndrome” and the “guardian syndrome” – two moral systems that shape the evolution of societies (and cities).
And, of course, we shouldn’t forget her other great work, The Nature of Economies (2000), which made the case for looking at economies as complex ecosystems.
Jane Jacobs never graduated from college, but she has had a profound impact on intellectual inquiry in many domains. As one example, her work influenced the thinking of University of Chicago economist Robert Lucas in the area of human capital – an area of inquiry that won him the Nobel Prize in 1995. Steven Berlin Johnson credits Jane Jacobs with crystallizing his thinking about the potential connection between complexity theory and the organization of cities, leading ultimately to the publication of his book on Emergence.
Jane Jacobs traveled with ease across many intellectual borders – her work remains impossible to pigeon-hole into the disciplinary boundaries that narrow, and often impoverish, intellectual inquiry today. Her work also transcends conventional political boundaries. In a world that is increasingly polarized and paralyzed politically, it is remarkable that tributes upon her passing are emerging from all points of the political spectrum. It is also impressive that the blogosphere has erupted with so much commentary – Technorati shows more than 800 posts in the past 48 hours alone. It appears that Jane Jacobs also has had a significant impact across several generations.
Active almost to the end, Jacobs indicated she still wanted to write two more books – A Short Biography of the Human Race and Uncovering the Economy. One can only imagine what ground she might have covered in these works – we will all be much poorer with the loss of this independent and original mind.