Why I cannot fall fully for Jane Jacobs

by on May 25, 2006 at 6:19 am in Economics | Permalink

I love the main ideas of Jane Jacobs.  Her passing was truly sad for me.  I read her as a teenager.  It shook my world.

Nonetheless I think she is a tiny-teeny bit overrated.  She never coped with the problems of scale.  Nor did she explain how infrastructure should be built.

It is fine to juxtapose the old Greenwich Village against the gargantuan planning of the corrupt Robert Moses.  Few other social scientists of her time grasped the idea of  spontaneous order.  But what to do if a city grows from one million to ten million people, as has happened many times in the Third World?

To be sure, favelas and shanties work far better than their reputations.  Drug gangs aside, they embody many of the best qualities of Jacob’s analysis, or for that matter Hayek’s.  But surely it is a problem when there is no piped water or reliable electricity.  How can you get those services into new areas without some serious planning?  You can call for private sector involvement but it is planning nonetheless and it probably will involve some use of eminent domain.  Or how about new roads?

Perhaps I am unfair to Jacobs, but I read her as thinking we can confront the problems of cities without answering those questions.

It is perhaps unfair to note that Jacobs’s "straight economics" often made little sense, but surely this is relevant to how she understood the major problems of cities.  She doubted the necessity of the nation-state and was suspicious of internal economies of scale under a common legal order.  She promoted "import substitution," which is now a discredited idea among both left-wing and right-wing economists.

Here is a list of Moses’s projects for New York City.  Could the Big Apple have prospered and grown without them?

sammler May 25, 2006 at 4:25 am

“The corrupt Robert Moses”? I wasn’t aware of that — is there a good source for more information?

David Sucher May 25, 2006 at 9:04 am

Your criticism is quite fair and relate as much or more as to the way Jacobs is mis-read and mis-interpreted by right-wingers eager to attack all government regulation and infrastructure development.

But if memory serves (and I am starting to re-read her “Death and Life…) Jacobs does seem — and I am very big Jacobs fan — to blissfully glide over how that lovely Greenwich framework of streets and blocks was established in the first place.

There must have been some social agreement (and probably govt intervention to enforce) the inital pattern. Was it lower key and more informal than now? Sure. There were fewer people.

But these days there needs to be some level of central planning to establish the invisible (invisble because it is so obvious) initial platting and installation of utilities. To suggest that such things will arise out “spontantaneously” is absurd.

If govt didn’t exist, developers would create it to facilitate solving the ‘boundary problem’ where new plats come together, to provide mimimum standards and certain large scale infrastructure such as trunk roads and sewer.

lk May 25, 2006 at 9:33 am

“She promoted “import substitution,” which is now a discredited idea among both left-wing and right-wing economists.”

I suppose that’s one reading of Cities and the Wealth of Nations. A more charitable reading is that she believed city regions in essence created something like “import substitution” as regional producers responded to the diverse demands of consumers in a dense urban core. Whether or not all of her economic policy recommendations made sense (they were hit and miss, and where sometimes grounded in curious conjectures or probably mistaken views about how economies function), her suspicions about how urban economies work have generated some very interesting social science (a fruitful empirical debate in urban economics about within- and cross-sector information externalities, for instance).

candid May 25, 2006 at 10:22 am

She never coped with the problems of scale. Nor did she explain how infrastructure should be built.

One could ask why the same complaint isn’t levied against, say, economists who write letters advocating open immigration.

Perry May 25, 2006 at 11:03 am

The main difference is that cities of old used to follow this pattern:

* Lay out streets and utilities
* plat out blocks and lots
* let whatever wants to get built happen wherever it happens to work.
* Let redevelopment happen at its own pace

Then over time you end up with a random and haphazard mix of ages, types, uses, etc all arising yes from planning, but the planning of space, not of order.

And thats what I feel that Jane Jacobs argues against most, not planning or infrastructure in and of itself per se, but the deliberate planning of usage and order. The idea that some megaproject or superproject will cure all ills, which exists even to this day.

Moses was instrumental in bringing along the age of the housing project, which took blocks that may once have been slums and converted them for ever and all time into monolithic bunker style complexes that will never be able to change and adapt with new ages and ideas. Jacobs propably would have said that just allowing those buildings to stay as they were without ‘fixing’ them would allow one day for them be the next Tribeca, or SOHO or any number of areas now gentrified but previously slums.

And so it is with the Highway project as well. Manhattan seems to have done just fine being the center of a (The?) world class city without having a highway arterial pierce through its neighborhoods. What more proof is needed that shows that Moses’s Cross Manhattan expressway plan was not necessary? Who knows if Manhattan would be Detroit today with the aftereffects of what was once planned?

John Lilly May 25, 2006 at 12:27 pm

I also have to question–strongly, in fact–the characterization of Robert Moses as “corrupt.” Wasn’t he simply addicted to power and very good at amassing it? You can be a power-drunk jerk and not be corrupt. (And you can be a power-drunk jerk and still be useful, as the original post indicates.) Perhaps I’m forgetting some malfeasance of his, but I don’t recall a single instance of corruption.

As to the role of government and citizenry in the development of Greenwich Village, I find this passage from the Encyclopedia of New York fascinating:

“Efforts to preserve the [Village’s] crooked colonial lanes were mounted as early as the second decade of the nineteenth century, when a coalition of residents prevailed on thhe Common Council to modify the grid plan of 1811. As a result much of the district was exempted from the rigid symmetry that dictated the development of Manhattan north of Houston Street, except for lands east of what is now 6th Avenue.”

Christopher M May 25, 2006 at 12:46 pm

Seems like a bit of a caricature going on here. I just read Death and Life recently, and Jacobs certainly didn’t seem to be opposed across-the-board to centralized planning, construction, etc. Indeed, one of her concerns was that neighborhoods should be structured so that they’re capable of exercising influence on the higher, more centralized levels of planning. Her concern was mostly with what the central planners were actually doing, not per se with the fact that they existed. See also this snippet from an interview:

Blake Harris: When you start talking about the big role of government and that it messes around too much in people’s lives sometimes, is there a danger that one can become too free-enterprise, that one is forgetting the social network that government can provide?

Jacobs: You are putting words in my mouth. I never said that government was messing around too much in our lives. I said it was doing stupid things. That’s not the same thing at all. It may be doing too little in our lives and still be doing stupid things. It’s not an ideological thing.

Robert Speirs May 25, 2006 at 2:04 pm

As to the favelas, Hernando de Soto in The Mystery of Capital makes a convincing argument that the missing link to prosperity is a “social network” made up of laws making the ownership of real property easy to attain and relatively safe from interference by the powers that be. Once that’s established, the provision of services can be taken care of by the market, financed by the money residing in the real property. Without that, no prosperity is possible. It looks to me like Jacobs would agree with de Soto. Government doesn’t build roads and sewers. Money does.

Richard Layman May 25, 2006 at 3:24 pm

I’m with Perry and Christopher M. Of course, we all read into _Death and Life_ what we want to read into it. I read it only after reading Roberta Gratz’s _Cities: Back from the Edge_, which is a more understandable primer based on D&L (as is Gratz’s _The Living City_, which has a chapter describing JJ’s battle against the freeway). (D&L is subtle and requires a fair amount of experience to really understand in all its nuance.)

I agree that she wanted us to focus on places and people and what makes great places. A great place isn’t anti-planning, but is anti-stupidity.

E.g., yesterday I wrote a blog entry about an eminent domain seizure being disallowed in Baltimore, in the Station North Arts District. That area has tremendous assets, and the urban renewal attitude that Baltimore still proudly wears is antithetical to harvesting those assets–what Gratz/Jacobs call “urban husbandry.”

I guess deep down I accept the Convention Centers etc., although I never claim that they are the panacea they are made out to be. I have many criticisms of DC’s convention center, partly because they invested no money into rehabilitating the historic buildings along 9th Street NW between M and Rhode Island–the area is severely disinvested and strategic rehabilitation would have actually enticed people out of the white elephant to visit neighborhoods.

That’s the kind of thing that I like to believe Jane Jacobs pointed us to. She was for asset-based community and economic development, at a time when people like Moses and Mumford believed there was no worth in the extant assets (physical, human, organizational).

Being against stupidity is a lot different than being against planning. Being for citizen engagement and paying close attention to what really happens at the street level, rather than theory (modernism etc.) is not being against planning either.

As I say in my efforts, I am not against development, just stupid and ugly development. Jane Jacobs has paved the way for deliberative advocacy and engagement.

And she built the foundation that others have added to, ranging from the books I mentioned by Gratz, to Steve Belmont’s _Cities in Full_ and to the _Urban Design Compendium_ available for free from English Partnership.

And these efforts have everything to do with the path laid out by Jane Jacobs, and not by New Urbanists, which have merely repackaged, but brought much greater attention to, the principles of urban design, which again, come out of _Death and Life_.

At the root it comes down to connecting places, mixed primary uses, people-sized blocks, vitality, density, and yes, “a large stock of old buildings.” And it took Jane Jacobs to point it out to a profession increasingly enamored with the car and suburban dwellers, a profession that thought that cities were old news, and ready for the ash can of history…

That planners and developers militantly ignore the principles laid out in D&L still shows us how much work remains.

Kurt Schuler May 25, 2006 at 4:56 pm

“Could the Big Apple have prospered and grown without” Robert Moses’ projects? Most definitely; it was already the largest city in the Western Hemisphere before Moses came along. For a few years I lived several blocks away from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, one of Moses’s projects. More than a generation after it had been built, it remained a blight on the neighborhood. And one of his enormous swimming pools nearby was by that time just a decaying concrete hole in the ground. Moses thought on a big scale and inflicted damage on a big scale.

candid May 25, 2006 at 9:29 pm

Keith —

Next time I am stuck sitting in LA traffic, I will try to grin and bear it by reminding myself that I am benefiting from a low “average cost of infrastructure”.

If a bridge has a fixed cost of production and zero marginal cost per user, then an additional immigrant lowers others’ cost of building that bridge, even if that immigrant contributes only a dollar.

The problem with this reasoning is that at some point each additional user lowers the marginal _benefit_ of the bridge, of the power plant, the water purification facility, the sewer system, and so on.

Your “economies of scale” argument only works in some fantasy world where new bridges (and freeways and sewer lines and water pipes and power plants) can instantly come into being as soon as demand for them exists.

Robert Schwartz May 26, 2006 at 12:38 am

three cheers for Robert Moses. His vindication is all but assured.

Keith May 26, 2006 at 10:17 pm

Candid, then you’re not making an economy-of-scale argument against immigration. You’re making a congestion argument, which has nothing to do with economies of scale.

But, if we follow your logic, then what you’re saying is that immigration imposes some short-term costs as immigrants cause congestion, but generates long-term benefits as they enable lower average costs of infrastructure. Okay.

Anonymous October 14, 2008 at 1:32 am

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