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Thursday, May 4, 2023

The Jane Jacobs History You Weren’t Taught in School

In her principled opposition to the grandiose 'renewal' plans of famous urban planner Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs revealed that the 'real jungle is in the office of the bureaucrats.'

Image Credit: Library of Congress

Based on the following credentials, which of these two very real (but now deceased) people do you think would be most likely to excel in “urban planning,” the practice of designing and developing land use, transportation, infrastructure, and other important elements of the building and management of cities?

Person A earned an undergraduate degree from Yale and another from Wadham College, a master’s degree from Wadham, and a doctorate from Columbia University. From there, this person went on to hold more positions within the government of a major American metropolis than perhaps any other in its history—supervising everything from parks to architecture to roads and bridges.

Person B earned just one degree, a high school diploma, and that’s it. Never held a position within any city government, anywhere.

If you chose Person A, you might need to brush up on your F. A. Hayek. The famed Austrian School economist and Nobel laureate once cogently advised,

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.

University degrees are still a kind of “union card” for employment in some places. Perhaps they are a rough measure of information in one’s head, but information should not be confused with wisdom. It was with good reason, after all, that William F. Buckley once noted that he would “rather live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

Person A in my paradigm was Robert Moses (1888-1981), who wielded immense authority as an unelected New York City “planner” for decades, and under administrations of both Democrat and Republican mayors. He is a perfect example of how power corrupts, for the longer he hung around, the more dismissive he was of dissenting opinions.

His “renewal” projects were punctuated with arrogance. When he used the city’s eminent domain powers to wipe out whole neighborhoods, he spoke derisively of the citizens whose property he bulldozed. The “city” in his mind was not composed of its living residents so much as the concrete structures he envisioned in their place. The residents were the city’s “jungles” that he would use city government to “clear out” and cleanse.

Person B in my paradigm was Jane Jacobs (1916-2006), a heroine of urban culture if ever there was one. Incredibly intuitive and observant, as well as courageously outspoken, she knew cities from the bottom up. Whereas the “well-educated” Robert Moses looked down on cities from above and saw jungle, Jacobs proved in her principled opposition to his grandiose plans that, in her words, “The real jungle is in the office of the bureaucrats.”

Today—May 4, 2023—marks the 107th anniversary of the birth of the remarkable Jane Jacobs. No one is an expert on cities if he isn’t well aware of what she believed, what she wrote, and what she did.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is a remarkable documentary video I encourage readers to watch. One of the many people interviewed in it neatly summarizes what Jacobs was all about:

Never mind high-falutin’ theories and so forth. What are we looking at? What are we seeing? Do you want to trust some theory that somebody figured out sitting in an office somewhere, or do you want to trust what you actually see out there with your own eyes? Maybe the experts didn’t really know as much as they pretended to know.

At the height of his power and influence, Robert Moses ripped at the heart of New York City’s vibrant and often ethnic enclaves. He devastated colorful street and sidewalk culture and erected lifeless hi-rise public housing in its place (which even its residents resented). He loved his bulldozers but Jacobs preferred people.

In one of the many public protests she helped organize, Jacobs wore a placard around her neck adorned in large letters with the message, “Conscience: the Ultimate Weapon!”

Professionally, Jacobs was a journalist. Her competence derived not from any university degrees she bought, but from her street-savvy understanding of people and city life. She proved to be a brilliant strategist in taking on Moses when she led citizens in killing his plans to build a road through a beloved city park. When he proposed to construct an expressway across Lower Manhattan, forever blighting life in Greenwich Village and Soho, Jane Jacobs played the role of David to Moses’ Goliath. It’s an inspiring story of grassroots opposition that ultimately proved the emperor had no clothes.

In the name of “urban renewal” and with the political pomp of its ribbon-cutting ceremonies, Jacobs implored us to examine the actual results of government bullies like Robert Moses:

Look what we have built…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 models 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…Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

My purpose in this essay is not to recount the famous battles between Jacobs and Moses in detail, but rather to mark her birthday with some of her most memorable insights and to encourage readers to look at her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. In the recommended readings below, you’ll also find some excellent articles about her.

I hope these selected Jacobs quotes will inspire many new readers of her work:

“There is nothing more inert than a government bureau. There is nothing more inert than a planning office. It gets going in one direction and it’s never going to change of its own accord…The citizens are going to have to frustrate the planners. I thereupon began to devote myself to frustrating planners, and so did the whole neighborhood.”


“I was brought up to believe that there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment. I was encouraged to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and a freedom for chewing over odd ideas.”


“I was taught that the American’s right to be a free individual, not at the mercy of the state, was hard-won and that its price was eternal vigilance, that I too would have to be vigilant. I was made to feel that it would be a disgrace to me, as an individual, if I should not value or should give up rights that were dearly bought. I am grateful for that upbringing.”


“Extremists typically want to squash not only those who disagree with them diametrically, but those who disagree with them at all. It seems to me that in every country where extremists of the left have gotten sufficiently in the saddle to squash the extremists of the right, they have ridden on to squash the center or terrorize it also. And the same goes for extremists of the right. I do not want that to happen in our country.”


“Advanced cultures are usually sophisticated enough or have been sophisticated enough at some point in their pasts, to realize that foxes shouldn’t be relied on to guard henhouses.”


“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.”


“The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success.”


“The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so.”


“The first thing to understand is that the public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves…No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down.”


“To see complex systems of functional order as order and not as chaos takes understanding. The leaves dropping from the trees in the autumn, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a dissected rabbit, the city desks of a newspaper—all appear to be chaos, but they are seen without comprehension. Once they are seen as systems of order, they actually look different.”


“Historically, solutions to city problems have very seldom come from the top. They come from people who understand the problems firsthand because they’re living with them and have new and ingenious and often very off-beat ideas of how to solve them.”


“Under the seeming disorder of the old [pre-“urban renewal’] city…is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the street and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. This order is all composed of movement and change and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city, and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole.”

For Additional Information, See:

The Great Mind and Vision of Jane Jacobs by Sandy Ikeda

Decentralized Urban Planning and Local Knowledge: Jane Jacobs’s Contribution by Nolan Gray

Jane Jacobs and the Life of Cities by Sandy Ikeda

Urban Design and Social Complexity by Sandy Ikeda

The Invisible City by Sandy Ikeda

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City (video)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities by Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century (video)

The Tragedy of Urban Renewal: The Destruction and Survival of a New York City Neighborhood (video)

The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York by Robert Caro

Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses: Urban Fight of the Century (video)

  • Lawrence W. Reed is FEE's President Emeritus, having previously served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s president (2008-2019). He is also FEE's Humphreys Family Senior Fellow and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty. His Facebook page is here and his personal website is