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Thursday, April 27, 2006

Jane Jacobs and the Life of Cities

by Sandy Ikeda

Sandy Ikeda is an associate professor of economics at Purchase College, SUNY.

Jane Jacobs, one of the most important and influential public intellectuals of the twentieth century, died in her sleep Tuesday. She was author of nine books, including The Economy of Cities (1969), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1985), The Nature of Economies (2000), and her first and most famous work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961). She also published an article in the prestigious American Economic Review (“Strategies for Helping Cities,” September 1969).

When I first met her she had just published her latest, Dark Age Ahead (2004), and was planning to write at least two more. She was then just shy of her 88th birthday. (She would have turned 90 this May.) Besides the common-sense genius of her ideas, what stands out in my personal memories is her warmth and profound humanity, which in a sense I think grounds all her writings and activism. It is, for example, the perspective of flesh-and-blood people that serves as the starting point of her explanation of how cities and civilizations work. From the perceptions of ordinary persons emerge the social ties that promote safety, trust, and, ultimately, dramatic economic development and social change. Casual, informal contact, especially among relative strangers in public spaces, is for Jacobs the small change from which a city’s wealth is built.

As an economist working in the tradition of Mises, Hayek, and Kirzner, what have I learned from Jane Jacobs? It is in short this: that densely populated settlements which embody a wide diversity of skills and tastes are the incubators of dynamic social development and entrepreneurial discovery — Density + Diversity rArr; Development and Discovery — and that government intervention tends to undermine the free air of cities in which even ordinary people can do extraordinary things.

Jane Jacobs was no ordinary person, however. With only a high-school diploma she managed through her books to dramatically change the face of the urban landscape. But she preached what she practiced. Her writings reflect not only her reading and seeing, but also her doing. Among other accomplishments as an activist, she and other community leaders in the 1960s managed to stop a federally funded project to bulldoze a freeway through what is today one of the most vibrant districts in Lower Manhattan. And this was against one of the most intimidating figures in New York history, the power broker Robert Moses.

Although we will sorely miss the two books she had yet to write, those she left behind offer bold ideas to build on and to critique. Her humanistic approach to doing social science continues to inspire activists and intellectuals across the ideological spectrum.