Why I cannot fall fully for Jane Jacobs

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?


Comments for this post are closed