Preservation Institute
The Natural Environment : The Social Environment

Home Page

What We Believe


Transportation and Development Politics

Political Theory: Beyond Progressive and Conservative

Preservation Institute Blog

email us


Jane Jacobs
Her Life and Work

By Gert-Jan Hospers
School of Business, Public Administration and Technology
University of Twente, Enschede, The Netherlands
published by The Preservation Institute


Jane Butzner Jacobs was born on 4 May 1916 in Scranton, a mining town in the American state of Pennsylvania, where her father was a family doctor. After graduating from high school, where she claims she was bored and secretly read other books during the class, she became a voluntary journalist with the local newspaper. After one and a half year Jacobs spread her wings and moved from provincial Scranton to cosmopolitan New York. The metropolis was in the middle of the Great Depression, however, and finding a job was far from being easy. Jacobs accepted all kinds of jobs, varying from journalist to secretary, but sometimes could find no work at all. In the periods when she was unemployed, she took long walks through New York and observed the hustle and bustle of the city. She also took courses in physics and social subjects at Columbia University, just because she liked them. Later she said that this time in New York taught her a lot about city life and the social-economic dynamic it radiates, a theme which reccurs in her work.

While working for the Office of War Information, Jane met her husband, the architect Robert Hyde Jacobs, whom she married in 1944. They moved into a house in the cozy New York neighborhood of Greenwich Village and raised their three children there. In the meantime, Jacobs wrote for the magazine Architectural Forum, where she applied herself to urban development and planning. Then she found out how little planning theory corresponded with the reality of city life. Robert Moses, a powerful commissioner in New York at that time, for example, supported a policy in which small scale and lively neighborhoods must be replaced by megalomaniac projects like business centers, motorways and skyscrapers. When even her own neighborhood was threatened by this urban monotony, Jacobs had enough and she started to write.

In 1961, her first work appeared, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The book caused a shock in the world of urban planning and Jacobs’ name was immediately established. Jacobs did not just have a trenchant writing style; she suited her actions action to her words. Under her supervision demonstrations and neighborhood protests were held against what she called the "Federal Bulldozer" approach. Jacobs was arrested twice while doing this.

The active attitude of Jacobs was also clear in her protests against the Vietnam War, which led to her permanently moving to Toronto, with her family, after 30 years in New York. She still lives there happily downtown, on Albany Avenue 69. Although Jacobs does not always agree with the policy of the municipality, according to her Toronto continues to be a model of a diverse and vital city, or "a city which works."

Through the years Jacobs developed her vision of cities in The Economy of Cities (1969) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984). Furthermore, she is, on request and unasked, involved in matters that occupy Canadian politics, like regionalism in Quebec. This societal involvement resulted in the book The Question of Separatism (1980) and articles in national newspapers and magazines.

Gradually, apart from urban interest, Jacobs developed an interest in philosophical and social themes. From the nineties she occupied herself with penetrating the fundamental values in economy and society. In Systems of Survival (1992) she emphasized the inherent differences between the work of trade and that of administration, while in The Nature of Economies (1998) she drew parallels between the evolution of biological and economic systems. In 2004 Dark Age Ahead appeared, a book in which Jacobs warned contemporary man against the dangers of unbridled progressive thinking.

If it were up to her, this would not be not the last book she writes. Even though Jacobs is advanced in years now and she suffers from physical ailments, she is determined to write two more books, namely A Short Biography of the Human Race and Uncovering the Economy. Just like her previous works, these books will surely get a lot of media attention when they are finished, but as in the past, she will reject every form of recognition. Very exceptionally, in 1991, she accepted the Toronto Arts for Life Time Achievement on Jane Jacobs Day; from that moment on, she has refused all prizes and honorary doctorates. Her motto is and stays: "I don’t know who this celebrity called Jane Jacobs is. It’s not me. You either do your work or you’re a celebrity; I’d rather do my work."

Critical Consideration

Compared to the work of many other critical thinkers, the oeuvre of Jane Jacobs is relatively easily surveyed. Her work consists, in total, of seven books and a number of notes varying from short magazine articles to letters to newspapers. Jacobs still has a love-hate relation towards writing: "I would be anything else than a writer, while I’m trying to write. Nothing else, when I’ve got something finished." Sitting behind her typewriter, it takes her about 8 years to finish a book, and "87% of my ideas disappear in the waste paper basket." Her hard work is not without results though: the books are all bestsellers and some are translated from English into several languages. Reprints of all these books still appear, especially by Jacobs’ favorite publishing house, Random House.

Concerning chronology and themes, Jacobs’ work can roughly be divided into two parts. From the sixties to the middle of the eighties Jacobs mainly wrote about the problems of cities and their role in the economy and society. She developed her ideas on this in three books which each have the word "cities" in the title. Her interest, however, seems so have shifted since the nineties to more social-philosophical issues, which also resulted in three books. In these books Jacobs deals with the nature of fundamental cultural values and their social-economic meaning. Finally, there is one book that stands separate from the others because of its focus on the Canadian province Quebec: The Question of Separatism (1980). Below, we will examine the different themes of Jacobs’ oeuvre.

Cities and Diversity

Ever since her time in New York Jacobs has lost her heart to city life. She loves the urban dynamic and is fascinated by the people who live, work and amuse themselves in cities. "The city has something to offer to everyone, since it is created by everyone" is one of her famous sayings. This vision is in sharp contrast to the ideal of many city planners and officials from her New York period, like Le Corbusier and Moses. According to Jacobs, urban development cannot be planned from behind a drawing table. For her a city is not something abstract. From the title of her first book The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) it is clear that she prefers to use a biological metaphor: the city is like a living being that is born, grows, matures, decays and can revive. The elements of the city, "the people, streets, parks, neighborhoods, the government, the economy," cannot exist without one another and are, like the organs of the human body, connected with each other.

In this evolutionary approach streets play an important role: they are the lifeblood where urban dwellers meet each other and where trade and commercial activities take place. The street is the scene a "sidewalk ballet," according to Jacobs, which determines the security, social cohesion and economic development of cities. From this perspective, even taking out the garbage or having a talk with a passer-by is a deed of dramatic expression. These every day acts make a city into a vital city.

In The Death and Life Jacobs expands on the physical conditions which are the foundation of the street ballet. For a good performance of the urban play, she claims, the scene needs to meet four conditions. Firstly, neighborhoods should have several functions, so that there are people on the streets at all hours of the day. If in a neighborhood there is only activity at night, or in the morning, as in many business or commuter areas, activities like hotel and catering, culture and retail trade hardly get the chance to blossom. In neighborhoods with a mix of functions, however, throughout the day these facilities are needed which in itself starts a process of reinforcement. Secondly, Jacobs believes that a city benefits from short building blocks and an intricate street structure. Pedestrians must have the possibility to go round, take a different route sometimes, and thereby discovering something new. Thirdly, there should be enough variation in the residential area: buildings that differ in age, level of maintenance and function contribute to a varied and colorful city image. Lastly, Jacobs advocates a high degree of concentration of people in one place. She supports compact city neighborhoods where different kinds of households and individuals (families, elderly, entrepreneurs, artists, migrants, students) live together. The fact is that this variety on the small scale results in the critical mass which is necessary to maintain an equally varied supply of local facilities. In such a busy and diverse neighborhood the local supermarket, the kebab shop and the chain store can coexist without problems.

Jacobs emphasizes that the spatial conditions for a street ballet cannot do without one another. Only in combination do they lead to the diversity that is needed for a blossoming city life. In this way, urban diversity ensures that there are people close by at every moment of the day. If there are enough "eyes on the street," she claims, crime is not given a chance and the collective feeling of security increases. The variety in functions, buildings and people also plays an important role in maintaining social cohesion. It is not so much about keeping in touch with the neighbors, but rather about interaction on the street, at the bus stops or in shops. This is how people get the feeling of belonging to a community, or being at home somewhere. In order to indicate these loose neighborhood networks, Jacobs talks about "social capital," a term which is very popular nowadays among city governors.

Not only socially, but also economically, urban diversity is of great importance, according to Jacobs. In an area of the city with different kinds of suppliers and buyers, entrepreneurs can share their facilities, such as office spaces and machines, and profit from a varied supply of knowledge and expertise. The cross-fertilization which results from that diversity works as a magnet for companies that are looking for a new place to establish themselves. Additionally, the mix of old and new buildings in the neighborhood gives every type of entrepreneur a chance. In this way, it is possible that a modern stockbroker’s office and a traditional furniture maker are neighbors. According to Jacobs’ motto, "new ideas often need old buildings" so a city neighborhood can grow into a true breeding ground of entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation.

Cities and Economics

Although in her first work Jacobs pays special attention to the city life of every day, in the two books that follow she places the city in a broader historical and economic context.

In The Economy of Cities (1969) Jacobs asks the simple though classical question "why some cities grow and others stagnate and decay," a theme that many historians since the Greek historian Herodotus have occupied themselves with. In her book, Jacobs introduces an analysis that contradicts the prevailing opinions on urban development. Generally, one assumes that the agricultural era preceded the period in which cities flourished. According to Jacobs, however, cities already existed before humankind even started with agriculture; in fact, it was the cities that have made agricultural activities possible. Ultimately, Jacobs claims, every form of economic development has a basis in the city.

In order to build her thesis, she refers to a number of examples and anecdotes. For example, it is clear from archaeological research that the first cities were trading posts: this trade at the local market then initiated organized agriculture and cattle breeding. Furthermore, the development of the Japanese bicycle industry is used as an example: the import in Japanese cities of bicycles from the West drove the local entrepreneurs to open more and more repair workshops. In the end, the Japanese became so good at repairing the imported bicycles that they - also in order to distinguish themselves from their local rivals - started to develop, produce and export their own bicycles. Jacobs concludes from these kinds of examples the general thesis that cities grow by treating, renewing and exporting imported goods and services, which results in income that can be used to import new items. The activities of the city offer the best setting for this innovation and "import replacement," says Jacobs, because entrepreneurs will continuously try to be ahead of the local competition. Jacobs transfers this regularity into the formula: D+A = nD, in which D is labor division in a given economic system, A new activities of entrepreneurs and nD the resulting new form of labor division. This comparison simply shows the way in which new activities develop from existing ones and thus how the economy of cities grows.

In Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) Jacobs goes one step further in the praise of the city: cities have not just played an important role in history, they are also the motor behind the national economic development. According to her, economists "whether they are liberal or Marxist" wrongly assume that countries form the relevant economic units. Influenced by Adam Smith’s classic The Wealth of Nations Jacobs argues, however, that national prosperity is nothing more than the sum of economic performances of individual cities in a country. Ultimately, trade and commercial activities always play at the level of a city and the region on which it has an influence. According to Jacobs, macro-economic figures like growth or unemployment percentages give a biased view: they are just abstract numbers which do not do justice to the big economic differences which can exist within a country among the separate cities and regions. These differences are an explanation for the paradox that a country can do well economically, on paper, while some of the inhabitants live in great poverty. In this context Jacobs points to the situation in Brazil, the United States and Italy in the sixties. She says that national policy is moreover an improper instrument to solve regional inequalities in a country. The national government had better leave the economic politics to the cities, not just because it is there that prosperity is created, but also because local politicians know better which measures are needed in a city because of their knowledge of the local situation.

The plea of Jacobs to think from the concrete, local and small-scale can also be found in the contributions she made to the debate in the Canadian politics. Titles of articles such as "Downtown for the People" and "Vital Little Plan" speak volumes. Also in The Question of Separatism: The Struggle of Quebec over Sovereignty (1984) about the regionalism of the French speaking province of Quebec, the pragmatic approach of Jacobs is clearly visible. Seen politically, the wish of Quebec to be independent may be controversial, according to Jacobs, but from an economic point of view the separation would have only advantages for both the province itself and Canada as a whole. She believes separatism results from the rivalry between Quebec and the neighboring, but much wealthier province Ontario. In order to diminish the economic differences between the provinces, the Canadian government put aside huge sums of tax money for support measures to Quebec. The mainly English speaking inhabitants of Ontario find this unjustified and push off even more against their French speaking countrymen. If Quebec separated from Canada and got self-government, this impasse could end: local economic initiatives would get a better chance of succeeding, the inhabitants of Ontario would not have a reason to complain anymore and the Canadian government is also relieved of a large expense. This practical logic is not appreciated by many Canadians. However, she is not discouraged by that. On the contrary, Jacobs takes every opportunity to bring forward her opinion on topical political questions, orally and in writing.

Fundamental Values

"Cities - how shall I put it? - they’re the crux of so many different subjects, so many different puzzles. There’s almost nothing you can think of that cities don’t provide some insight into," according to Jacobs. One of the issues that Jacobs often comes across when studying cities, is the difference of opinion between local entrepreneurs and city government. Based on these observations she developed throughout the years a more general theory of the distinction between undertaking enterprises and governing.

In Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics (1992) Jacobs presents a theory in the form of a series of discussion between five fictional New Yorkers who discuss moral issues. In this "didactic dialogue" after Plato, who invented this form of writing that is also called "Platonic dialogue," the persons conclude that our existing order of labor knows two moral systems: the "trade syndrome" (business community) and the "guards’ syndrome" (government). The trade syndrome is the domain of entrepreneurs and is based on commercial values like competition, efficiency, entrepreneurship, innovation and keeping to agreements. On the other hand, the guards’ syndrome is relevant to people who work in the public sector; this group is mainly led by civil virtues like obedience, discipline, hierarchy, loyalty and feelings of honor. Jacobs names both systems "syndromes" because their elements cannot do without each other and show an inner connection. For a healthy development of society, traders and guards need each other - without trade there is no prosperity and without maintenance of law and order after all no trade.

Despite their interdependence, the two sorts of morals need to be kept strictly separate, according to Jacobs. If they mingle, these "monstrous mixtures" will harm society. For example, some private virtues are public sins and vice versa. Something which is for example a favor for a friend according to an entrepreneur, can easily be seen as corruption by a city councilor. On the other hand, in politics changes in policies can often not be prevented, while the principle "a deal is a deal" is sacred for entrepreneurs. Because private and public values often exclude one another, it should be taken into account that if they are mixed there will be value conflicts, according to Jacobs. To her mind the possibilities for "syndrome friendly creativity" (in modern terms: public-private cooperation) are very restricted.

Like Systems of Survival (1992), The Nature of Economies (1999) is also written in the form of a Platonic dialogue. The five New Yorkers from Jacobs’ former work now sit around the coffee table and wonder what economy and nature actually have in common. Through many digressions and examples, they recognize that economic systems essentially function according to the same principles as nature. Finally, economic systems are, like ecosystems, "dynamic stable" according to the New York company, which means that they can survive through changes within the system itself. These corrections take place through complex processes like positive, itself strengthening feedback, negative check mechanisms and natural defensive reactions. The similarities between nature and economy should get much more attention according to Jacobs. The Nature of Economies can therefore be seen as a plea for the idea of "bio-mimicry," the study and imitation of natural phenomena in the hope of gaining new insights in other application areas. A well-known application of bio-mimicry is the Wright brothers, who developed the wings of their plane following the example of the wings of a vulture. Jacobs strongly believes in this by nature stimulated innovation. If we looked more at biology, she makes the New Yorkers conclude, we could develop an economic system that is not just efficient, but also ecologically justified.

The fondness for fundamental issues that Jacobs developed in the nineties is also clear from her most recent book, which she ominously titled Dark Age Ahead (2004). In this book, which is mainly focused on North American current affairs, five fundamental institutions are identified: the family, higher education, the independency of science, the tax system and the self-governing by professional groups. According to Jacobs, these institutions are nothing less than the foundation on which the Western civilization is built. The worrisome thing however, is that these societal pillars are deteriorating now, especially in the United States. In this context she points out the recent developments like the increase of the number of divorces, the fight for students among educational institutions, the dependence of universities on externally financed research, the waning tax morale and the account scandals. Jacobs fears that if this trend continues, then "societal dementia" will occur: the generations after us will not be aware of the deep rooted and binding character of the five before mentioned institutions - with the unavoidable consequence that society will be disrupted. In order to turn the tide, Jacobs makes an appeal that reminds one of the biblical principle "Explore many things, but keep the good thing." She warns Western man about the unbridled progressive thinking of today and the haughtiness and overestimation of oneself that it involves. If we do not want to become the victim of what the old Greeks used to call "hybris" (overconfidence), we should, according to her, cherish our institutions. She refers to the recent economic rise of Japan and Ireland: both countries have successfully anticipated new developments, but at the same time they purposefully hold on to their national cultural traditions.

An Appraisal of Jacobs’ Work

Jacobs has a trenchant writing style and does not make any attempt to disguise her opinions. It is therefore not surprising that her work has caused the usual reactions. Especially Jacobs praise of the cities as the driving force behind prosperity and welfare seems a little naive to many. It almost seems that Jacobs says that living in the countryside is impossible. Other critics focus on Jacobs thoughts that mankind naturally has a passion for the vivacity of the city. With her plea for small-scaled cities, diversity, short building blocks, and high population density she emphasizes in each case the structural working of the physical environment for city life. According to some, this goes too far and the danger of "physical determinism" is enormous: in other words, Jacobs wrongly suggests that the spatial design of the city determines the way people treat each other and organize their lives.

Strangely enough, most of the criticism is not so much aimed at the content of her ideas, but at the form in which she presents her ideas. Jacobs work is often dismissed as unscientific or even amateurish. Especially her later books about fundamental values in which she uses Platonic dialogues would not meet the scientific standards of objectivity, ability to generalize and test empirically. Furthermore, critics wonder if Jacobs as a relative outsider even has a right to speak on themes that she has not graduated in. Exactly the city planners and economists that Jacobs criticizes value their education, and therefore they seldom take non-colleagues seriously. In discussions on her book, Jacobs is usually accused of not conforming to the scientific discourse, the prevailing paradigms and the relevant literature.

Although Jacobs may have studied a couple of subjects at university, she has never finished an academic study. Nevertheless, at the same time, that is maybe where her power lies: she is not hindered by the existing knowledge and is therefore capable of approaching an issue relatively unbiased. Among the many specialists who only partly occupy themselves with reality, she does not avoid the "grand questions." Jacobs herself for that matter does not agree so much with the believe of many in the relevance of "science," a phenomenon that she describes as "credentialism": an almost religious respect for everything academic. Jacobs distrusts the so-called "experts" and the "credits" that they are awarded by society. She considers the jargon of experts simply as intellectual bragging that diverts the attention away from the issues which really matter in the unruly reality. She also claims that scientific debates have a strongly ideological nature. This infighting in science is reprehensible because, she says, "Ideology does not solve problems. Solving problems solves problems."

Methodology and Style

Jacobs describes the approach that she follows when studying reality as "Seek truth from facts," a motto that she borrows from Deng Xiaoping. In contrast to many scientists who try to explain reality through an abstract, general theory (deduction), Jacobs sees the world on the contrary from the concrete, visible and everyday (induction). "I just describe the things as they are," she herself says. That is why Jacobs does not want to be called an expert or authority, but rather an "author." Especially from experiences from her own life, history or the news, she tries to derive regularities. Only if in the jumble of facts, experiences and happenings a pattern is recognizable, she advances to generalizations. This method is clearly seen in the lively writing style of Jacobs. Despite or maybe because of her unsystematic way of working, her books are a pleasure to read: by means of connecting anecdotes, numbers, historical examples and personal experiences, she automatically ends up at a general insight. In her books about cities, this way of reporting leads to "urban montage": the reader has the idea that he goes along with Jacobs and a camera around the city and records city life here and there.

Also in her later work do we clearly see this facts-based method. In Systems of Survival (1992) English youth gangs, the pre-historic cultures of India, and the debt crisis of the Third World are just as easily discussed as the influence of the Italian Mob in Canada, the customs of the East-African tribe - and the adventures of her father in law in the American Civil War. It is therefore not surprising that Jacobs uses a large number of sources; she does not get her inspiration from the most recent scientific article, but in contrast, from classical works, popular-scientific bestsellers, autobiographies and national newspapers. If her books refer to other literature, than it is the Bible, the Republic of Plato, the biography of Benjamin Franklin or an article from the Wall Street Journal or The Globe and Mail.

In order to penetrate reality, in short, Jacobs trusts the most direct observation, the everyday and common sense. Paradoxically, that common sense especially makes her a radical thinker. Every critic of Jacobs admits that her work makes them think. The economist Robert Lucas, for example, says that the book Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1969) led him to study the relationship between knowledge, innovation and economic growth - a contribution for which he would later, in 1995, get a Nobel prize.

Jacobs’ Work Today

If there is anyone who deserves the label "critical thinker," then it is Jane Jacobs. It is difficult to pigeonhole this now elderly woman, just like many intellectuals. Even though she writes about cities, the economy and fundamental societal issues, she is anything but a city planner, economist or social scientist. It is better to characterize her as the "flea in the fur" of these professional groups; the most important motive for her to write a book has always been the dissatisfaction with the prevailing views in science and politics. This critical attitude makes Jacobs an "enfant terrible": she sees the world with a refreshing open-mindedness of a child and does not let herself be stopped by arguments about authority. We have to take for granted that her analyses are therefore sometimes slightly naive, subjective and romantic.

As many critics remark, when reading, for example, Jacobs’ work about cities, you get the idea that it is impossible to live outside the city. This vision is naturally slightly exaggerated. In rural areas, also, there are examples of social capital, entrepreneurship and creativity. Moreover, apart from these dynamics, many cities nowadays have more and more problems with livability and safety. Even worse, some people nowadays seem to flee from the bustle of the city and consciously choose to live in a quiet newly build neighborhood or rural area.

Furthermore, the unsystematic, inductive approach that Jacobs uses sometimes raises questions. Take for example her most recent work Dark Age Ahead (2004): why would precisely the five pillars mentioned by Jacobs determine everything for the Western civilization? Are other fundamental values like tolerance, care for nature and trust in the politics not important? But at the same time: those who put up with this arbitrary approach of Jacobs discover a wealth of inspiring and relevant ideas in her work.

That the body of ideas of Jacobs cuts ice can be seen in the practice of everyday. In science, for example, interesting results are achieved with the method of "bio mimicry" propagated by Jacobs: nature as a source of inspiration to get an overview of the workings of other systems. Within economic science, "evolutionary economics" is strongly on the rise. In exact subjects, also, we see the application of the organic, evolutionary approach that Jacobs supports.

Not only for scientists, but also for politicians her oeuvre offers material to think about. Politicians struggle with issues in the field of city development and the working of the market every day. Jacobs can say meaningful things about these issues. For current municipal policy makers, her vision on city diversity is of importance. During recent decades the easy way out was often chosen in city planning - with dullness and mono-functionality in the urban area as a result. Policy makers who want to dedicate themselves to increasing city diversity can learn a lot from Jacobs. More and more municipalities in Europe - whether or not consciously - use her ideas successfully. For example, in the Dutch cities of Breda and Haarlem, investments have been made in living above shops, not just to build more houses, but also to create "eyes on the street" and "social capital." Another example is the restructuring policy of former industry areas like the English Sheffield and Essen in the German Ruhr area. Here, factory, industry and port areas are not just destroyed; instead, they reuse these buildings more and more as multi-company buildings, museums or living space.

Apart from what Jacobs has written about cities, her work on fundamental values is very topical. Nowadays, we are witnessing the possibility of clashes between the two moral systems Jacobs distinguishes in her Systems of Survival (1992). Tricky discussions about privatizing the national railroad system, the desirability of socially responsible enterprises and the question whether or not to introduce efficiency incentives at the police and in education indicate how delicate the relationship between public and private is. Let us hope that the blending of both systems will not lead to the "dark age" that Jacobs foresees in her last work. According to her, it is important to always approach these kinds of fundamental societal issues with a creative and fresh view, an eye for the existing, and common sense. Therefore, the message of Jane Jacobs is as effective as it is simple: go around the city, observe how the world works and look at reality in a new way!

Primary Bibliography

Someone who wants to get to know Jane Jacobs work should start with her best known books, namely The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and Systems of Survival (1992). The former is a model for her thinking about urban development, while the latter gives an impression of her ideas about values which are the foundation of economy and society.

Those who are interested in the other publications of Jacobs can go to Jane Jacobs Archive of Boston College, which is connected to the University of Toronto. The archive includes manuscripts of her books, all kinds of research results, unpublished speeches, book reviews, magazine and newspaper articles, photos and some letters that Jacobs wrote to her family while on visits abroad. A part of this material is published in the biography Ideas that Matter: the Worlds of Jane Jacobs (Owen Sound, The Ginger Press, 1997), edited by Max Allen.