Usually we ask questions, but given that Jane Jacobs passed away in 2006, we will have to try a different technique: below are three questions - and Jacobs' answers - taken from some of her best interviews over the years.
"Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody." - The Death and Life of Great American Cities
For those of you not familiar with her or her work,
Jane Jacobs was an activist and writer who focused the majority of her attention on urban planning and arresting the decay of urban spaces. Her most important book is The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which remains to this day the must-read for anyone with even a casual interest in planning and urbanism. She is also well-known for her activism, principally against gentrification projects that could destroy unique local neighborhoods.
from Reason, June 2001; interviewer: Bill Steigerwald (BS)
BS: What do you think you'll be remembered for most? You were the one who stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people and said they were destroying the lifeblood of these cities. Is that what it will be?
JJ: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I've contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I've figured out what it is.
Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes.
Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing.
I've gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote The Economy of Cities, I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn't import less. And yet it has everything it had before.
from Government Technology, 2003 and widely reprinted; interviewer: Blake Harris (BH)
BH: A prevalent view today is that the old Industrial Age economy is now being replaced by an Information Age economy and that this new economy will somehow work differently. Your book starts from a very different view: That economic life is always ruled by basic processes and principles that we have not understood properly.
JJ: Well, as for there being a new and an old economy, defined in the way you just did, I think that this is the change that people are groping for: A lot of the production work, design work, economic work that is being done now has a much higher proportion of what we call human capital in it and a much lower proportion of natural resources and other materials in it than in the past. And that is an important change that is very promising for sustainable economies because, after all, human capital - the experience, the skills, the inspiration, the imagination that goes into these things - is not a resource that is subject to the laws of diminishing returns. The more human capital is used, the more it grows.
The smaller the amount of material in things that are used, the metals and so on, and/or the cheapness and ubiquity of the materials that are used – I'm thinking of silicon for instance -- the better. Better for the planet and better for us. So there is a change that has been occurring. It hasn't occurred as abruptly as people think. It has been happening for quite some time. It is comparable and is of the same sort of order of change as the change from craftwork to mass production. There was a time when people made one pot at a time or one pottery lamp at a time. And of course that changed even in very ancient times to mass production of pots. This kind of thing keeps happening in economic life. But that doesn't mean that the rules that govern the economy are actually changing. What we've just been talking about are all instances of development. The actual things that development produces change, and even the methods by which people make the things change. But the process of development, the process that yields these methods -- that doesn't change. That is what we can't transcend. And that is what we have to pay attention to.
I don't think I've been complete in any way in describing everything to do with development. That is a huge subject. But what I have tried to do is mention the underlying or overriding nature of the process. And the word nature is deliberately used both ways here because it is a natural thing. It is universal. I see economic development as a form of natural development. It follows the same rules. What is develop ment in nature? It is differentiations that are arising out of prior generalities. This is what evolution is, or is a definition for it.
Even before evolution was worked out by Darwin and others, embryologists picked up glimpses of this process, for instance. And they arrived at that notion. It applies to the development of life, the development of species, both animal and plant, the development of an embryo of any kind, including our own. Also to inanimate sorts of development. The features on the face of the earth are differentiations arising out of previous generalities. And this is how economies develop too. Long ago, when somebody picked up a stone and pounded a shell with it to get it open, the stone was a found generality. But when people began shaping the stone somewhat for various purposes, like prying open the shell or making a spear point, those were differentiations. And to move forward to today, the Internet is a differentiation from quite a number of generalities. So the second point about natural development is that as a new differentiation arises, it becomes a generality in its turn.
from Metropolis, March 2001; interviewer: Jim Kunstler (JHK)
JHK: You lived through most of the 20th century and it must make for a dizzying view of contemporary history. For instance, you’ve seen pretty much the whole rise of the automobile from its days of stupendous promise before WWII to its utter savaging of the American landscape and townscape. Can you tell us how your own view of the automobile and its consequences evolved and if your view changed over the decades of your life.
JJ: Well, my family had an automobile before I was born even. My father was a doctor and he needed an automobile to get around. A generation earlier, it would have been a horse and buggy. This automobile was a tool of my father's, just as much as the bag he carried. We never thought of it as an all-purpose conveyance. For instance, if we wanted to go to downtown, which was two miles from where we lived in Scranton, we went down to the corner and got the streetcar. We were never chauffeured to things. When my father's office hours started coincided with one of my brothers and me being in high school very close to where he worked, we used to ride down with him. And once in a while our family would take a trip. I remember when I was four years old going to Virginia in the car to visit his relatives. Oh and I saw how the White House lawn was cropped in those days – there were sheep on the lawn in those days.
I didn’t see the automobile as a pernicious thing. I saw what was happening to the roads as a pernicious thing – the widening of roads and the cutting down of trees and then later on of course knocking down buildings, existing buildings. It was the roads I saw as being the destroyers. Perhaps that is a foolish distinction to make. The automobiles weren’t running into the houses and knocking them down, the automobiles weren’t cutting down the trees and so forth. Again, I’m not an abstract thinker, as you can see. The immediate concrete thing was what the roads were doing.