The Death and Life of a Great American Thinker

Jane Jacobs, great urban thinker, passed away this week in Toronto. Some of you who know me know that I'm an urban economist by training. Well, a lot of my modes of thinking about cities are influenced by Jacobs - things such as the joys of neighbourhoods, messiness, seeming inefficiencies such as small enterprises that are vital and crucial for economic growth, and more than just growth, life. Her effort to save Greenwich Village is well celebrated - the Village Voice, obviously, paid its tribute - but there's an entire body of work that she produced, well-written and fundamentally insightful, starting from The Death and Life of Great American Cities, that, thankfully, became highly influential.

I remember being very struck by The Economy of Cities first time I read it: its first chapter noting how despite the popular imagination of people first learning to farm before organising into cities, urban life has always preceded agricultural life in civilisations, and its point that what makes cities sociologically and economically valuable is precisely that they are inefficient and impractical, not in spite of those facts. There are redundancies galore (just as there are redundancies on the Internet, with every e-mail you send having numerous possible paths to reach its destination). And from these inefficiencies and redundancies stem vitality.

Of course, this may be of no surprise to anyone who's sat in a Parisian cafe watching the world go by, or to anyone who's wandered through the little stores of the East and West Villages and understood the beauty and joys of surprise. But messiness was hardly in favour in Singapore growing up, and it made a big difference to me to read theoretical underpinnings for something I've always believed. For that matter, messiness was hardly in favour among urban planners at the time of Jacobs' initial writing - I remember being stuck on a bus on the Cross-Bronx Expressway, and thinking about Robert Caro's words about how Robert Moses' insistence on pushing through that expressway basically laid waste to an entire neighbourhood, creating a slum (some sense of that historical episode here). And it was Jacobs impassioned pleas to preserve neighbourhoods, to get planners to really understand what makes cities tick, that helped stem a lot of potential urban disaster masquerading as urban renewal.

Globe and Mail obit
Project for Public Spaces
The Jane Jacobs Wikipedia entry


galbraith just passed away too
Daryl said…
Thanks - yes, I just saw that - gosh, another influential thinker.

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