Mises Daily

Jane Jacobs, The Anti-Planner

Jane Jacobs is one of those intellectuals who seem ever on the periphery of the libertarian movement. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, can be found on the shelves of many a libertarian, though often unread. Perhaps this is because her name tends to be associated with leftish intellectuals who decry the rise of the suburbs and the decline of the downtowns, even though Jacobs strongly resists being labeled by any ideological movement, left, right, or other.

What is not commonly known, however, is that her works are full of arguments and insights on the economic nature of communities, on central planning, and on ethics that libertarians would find original and enlightening. While gaps in her knowledge of economic theory and economic thought have disadvantaged her in some respects (e.g., the naïve criticisms of Adam Smith in her The Economy of Cities), it has also enabled her considerable powers of observation, intelligence, and good common sense to paint the nature of social processes in ways that are for economists in particular fresh and perhaps even inspiring. (See from the mainstream, for example, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser’s research on cities (Glaeser, et al. 1992).)

Jacobs on Spontaneous Order

In the works of Jacobs, the order present in a well-functioning urban area emerges as the result of human action but not human design. It arises from a myriad of individuals each pursuing their own interest and carrying out their own plans, within a framework of rules that encourages peaceful cooperation over violent aggression.

One of Jacobs’s major contributions is her conception of cities as “problems of organized complexity,” which entail “dealing simultaneously with a sizeable number of factors which are interrelated into an organic whole” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 432). Her theory of the evolution of cities (see below), as well as her explanation of the dynamics of economic expansion and contraction, trace the emergence and changes over time in urban institutions and community networks of trust back to the decisions of individual agents, with their “eyes on the street,” as they interact with one another in public spaces.

Jacobs’s detailed description of the functioning of healthy urban neighborhoods is based on her close observation of them. In such places, there are people, interested in the neighborhood, on the street throughout most of the day. Early in the morning, workers head off to their jobs in other neighborhoods as well as entering the neighborhood to work. Soon thereafter, parents transporting their children to school appear on the street. Shops open, and shopkeepers, anxious that the area of their business not frighten away customers due to dangers present in the area, keep a close eye on the sidewalks. Mothers with preschool children head to the parks, workers come out to eat lunch in them, and shoppers come and go from area stores. In the early evening workers again come and go from the neighborhood. As night falls, restaurants, bars, and nightclubs keep the sidewalks lively—and generally safe. The role of paid law enforcers in providing urban safety is decidedly secondary for Jacobs.

All of this is in sharp contrast to the life of the neighborhoods beloved by mid-century urban planners. There, “rational” planning kept uses strictly separate, with offices, factories, shops, and residences segregated into their own areas by strict zoning laws. As a result, neighborhood streets would be deserted for long stretches of time—and therefore dangerous. The increased danger would serve to further discourage pedestrian use of the streets.

Jacobs on the Nature of Planning

Jacobs also presents a methodologically individualist and subjectivist critique of heavy-handed local planning. She argues that such planning fails to take into account the subtleties of the knowledge possessed only by the individuals on the scene (for which she coined the term “locality knowledge”), and that it inappropriately imitates nineteenth-century physical sciences (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 436). (The parallels with Hayek’s conceptions of spontaneous order, local knowledge, and scientism are striking, especially since she was unfamiliar with Hayek’s work at the time.)

It doesn’t hurt to have some people thinking of a neighborhood as a whole. But those people needn’t be city planners—they could be large landlords, neighborhood association heads, or other sorts of voluntary organizations. (For example, see the work of Spencer H. MacCallum.)

Some libertarians may bristle when they realize that Jacobs aims her criticisms not only at government planning but also at private planning, which she argues can also be heavy-handed. While Jacobs’s innate grasp of the power of voluntary exchange and spontaneous order sometimes fails to overcome her lack of training in the fundamentals of economics (there is almost no mention in her earlier work, for example, of the deleterious effects of rent controls on the housing stock of cities), this is not the case here.

It’s true that perhaps the most important lessons that economics teaches us do concern the limitations and failures of government, yet ordinary people can still profit from applying to their decision making the economic concepts of, for example, opportunity cost, the law of demand, and marginal revenue. In other words, appreciating the dependence of locality knowledge and networks of trust, which support economic development, on the design of public spaces may be quite as important to profit-seeking private developers as it should be to those concerned with public planning.

There is, of course, a tendency for the profit motive to direct private development in directions that Jacobs would find congenial, and she seems to have come to appreciate this in her later writings (e.g., The Nature of Economies).

Jacobs often looked at the issue of urban planning, exhibiting great insight into its essential nature. For example, commenting on the schemes of the famed early planner, Ebenezer Howard, she says:

“[Howard’s] aim was the creation of self-sufficient small towns, really very nice towns if you were docile and had no plans of your own and did not mind spending your life among others with no plans of their own. As in all Utopias, the right to have plans of any significance belonged only to the planners in charge” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 17).

In similar fashion, she dissects the work of one of the luminaries of twentieth-century city planning:

“Le Corbusier’s Utopia was a condition of what he called maximum liberty, by which he seems to have meant not liberty to do anything much, but liberty from ordinary responsibility. . . . Nobody was going to have to struggle with plans of his own” (Ibid., p. 22).

It is interesting to compare Jacobs with Mises on planners:

“[The planners] are driven by the dictatorial complex. They want to deal with their fellow men in the way an engineer deals with the materials out of which he builds houses, bridges, and machines. They want to substitute “social engineering” for the actions of their fellow citizens and their own unique all-comprehensive plan for the plans of all other people. They see themselves in the role of the dictator—the duce, the Führer, the production tsar—in whose hands all other specimens of mankind are merely pawns. If they refer to society as an acting agent, they mean themselves. If they say that conscious action of society is to be substituted for the prevailing anarchy of individualism, they mean their own consciousness alone and not that of anybody else” (The Ultimate Foundation of Economic Science).

It is perhaps Jacobs’s dissection of particular planning schemes that did the most to establish her reputation. She noted that the schemes of the mid-century urban planners could not have destroyed neighborhoods better if they had been designed to do so.

She famously derided the urban planning schemes of Le Corbusier and his numerous twentieth-century followers (e.g., Robert Moses) as creating “skyscrapers in a park” (The Death and Life of Great American Cities, p. 21). She described the process by which a highway run through the heart of a neighborhood could destroy it by creating a “border vacuum,” rendered lifeless and ultimately unsafe by the lack of people venturing across it (Ibid., pp. 257–69). Similarly, she noted that the planners’ infatuation with building as many parks as possible, wherever they could be stuffed in, often resulted in deserted parks that were breeding grounds for crime and decay (Ibid., pp. 89–106).

Urban planners have traditionally been blind to the unseen fiber that holds successful communities together, or what Nathan Glazer has termed “the fine structure of society.” This consists of networks of trust and norms of reciprocity that have emerged over time, which promote the process of voluntary exchange, and that large-scale projects run the risk of wiping out. Any attempt to oversee economic development should take into account the importance of informal contact, which Jacobs describes as the “small change” that forms the basis of the fine structure. (Jacobs called the latter “social capital” in 1961, making her perhaps the first to coin the term (Ibid., p. 138).)

Exchange Created Cities and Agriculture

In a remarkable insight, reminiscent of Carl Menger’s insight on the origin of money, Jacobs presents a theory that the origins of cities, agriculture, and animal husbandry lie in exchange. Her theory is fully cognizant of the principles of human action and what we can realistically imagine the situation of those first urbanites to have been, as they would have understood it.

Jacobs contends that both animal husbandry and agriculture were most likely to have originated in the earliest urban settlements. Further, those settlements were the result of Paleolithic trade, and it was the intensification of trade in those early cities that paved the way for the development of agriculture and animal husbandry. To illustrate her theory, Jacobs tells the story of a fictional Paleolithic city she calls “New Obsidian.” New Obsidian arose at a site near a tribe living close to a volcano, where a great deal of obsidian could be found. Because obsidian was such a valuable material to a stone-age culture, that tribe was sitting on a great natural source of wealth and had an impetus to trade.

Jacobs supposes, though, that it was in the area of a tribe near the volcanic tribe where New Obsidian actually arose. (The supposition is not crucial to her theory.) The tribe living near the volcano is not anxious to allow others into its valuable territory, so it brings its obsidian to the nearby tribe, and relies on it as an intermediary in the obsidian trade. As traders from more distant tribes gather to trade in that central location, establishing at first temporary and later more permanent dwellings, people, ideas, and goods from a diversity of backgrounds and cultures mingle. From this not only tolerance of other tastes and beliefs emerges, but also new ideas, religions, and products. Such creativity and opportunity attract ever more traders and immigrants to New Obsidian, continuing a virtuous circle in which new ideas in arts, commerce, and culture are brought forth in creative bursts over time.

As noted, the trade in obsidian with neighboring tribes led to an increased variety of goods entering New Obsidian. The vast majority of those goods were food-related. Since the traders might have had to travel some distance to New Obsidian, they would want to trade with goods that kept well. The most likely food items would have been live animals and edible seeds.

Menger and Mises pointed out that it is absurd to suppose that one day, a king thought to himself, “let’s have a standard medium of exchange,” prior to anyone having experience with a medium of exchange. Employing similar reasoning, Jacobs notes that it makes little sense to suppose that a person or a group of people one day simply decided to domesticate animals: “The stewards [of animals used for trade in New Obsidian] are intelligent men, and are fully capable of solving problems and of catching insights from experience. But experience has not provided them yet with any idea that can be called ‘trying to domesticate animals’” (The Economy of Cities, p. 26). Rather, the rational desire to slaughter those animals brought in that are the hardest to maintain (males and the more rambunctious) and to keep those easier to maintain (females and the more docile) for longer periods, had the unintended consequence of initiating the art of animal husbandry.

Likewise, the accidental mingling of seeds and grain from diverse regions stored in common bins resulted in the unintentional hybridization of new forms of harvestable crops, some of which were tastier or more fruitful than others. These would fetch higher prices so that warehouse tenders would have an incentive keep an eye out for them and store some for future planting. Thus were the beginnings of agriculture.

It is a combination of self-interest, alertness, and trade that constitutes the genesis and emergence of cities, and it is a similar combination of factors that give rise to husbandry and agriculture. Indeed, Jacobs argues that it can only be in very large settlements, such as her imaginary New Obsidian, that the serendipity that is the genesis of such practices (and probably also the higher crafts, writing, and the sciences) could ever hope to occur. Thus, she concludes, somewhat counterintuitively, that cities had to precede, not follow, rural development (The Economy of Cities, pp. 3–48).

Jacobs and Libertarianism

Jacobs claims her keen understanding of urban processes originates by thinking inductively, rather than by proceeding explicitly from grand philosophical or ideological principles. She has been for and against various government initiatives. And the truth is that leftish intellectuals have indeed adopted many of her ideas. Although Jacobs is not uniformly opposed to using coercive regulation (e.g., substituting zoning for size limitations of buildings for zoning for use), in our opinion, however, those intellectuals have adopted her ideas out of context. That is, Jacobs’s descriptions of successful cities that have spontaneously formed walkable downtowns, mixed primary uses, short blocks, and buildings of a variety of styles and vintages have been interpreted by some as prescriptions for new, more enlightened forms of interventionist urban planning. Those in what are known as The New Urbanism and Smart Growth movements are especially guilty of this.

Jacobs herself has criticized the New Urbanists:

“[T]he New Urbanists want to have lively centers in the places that they develop, where people run into each other doing errands and that sort of thing. And yet, from what I’ve seen of their plans and the places they have built, they don’t seem to have a sense of the anatomy of these hearts, these centers. They’ve placed them as if they were shopping centers. They don’t connect.”

Despite her occasional advocacy of government intervention, there is a very strong libertarian tendency in Jacobs’ writings, even if she steadfastly refuses to be labeled. Her Systems of Survival (1994), for example, could be read as an analysis of why the mixed economy produces a kind of moral disequilibrium in which the clash of the ethics of the state with the ethics of trade generates a spiral of negative unintended consequences.

Jacobs is perhaps too inductivist for some Austrians and too willing to tolerate the limited use of regulation for some libertarians. Nevertheless, she is a largely untapped source of ideas and insights for these two groups, and a friend in the fight against tyranny, both local and global.


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