Emergent Urbanism

Rediscovering Urban Complexity

To walk the path of Jane Jacobs - review of What We See, Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs died in the spring of 2006. Three years earlier she had published the last book of her illustrious career as a philosopher, Dark Age Ahead, prophesying the fall of North American civilization. Today, this civilization is having a severe stroke due to all the factors that she warned us about. Instead of feeling confident about the outcome, being armed with the knowledge and wisdom of a great philosopher, our societies are plunged into total confusion. We fear what will come next because we have not yet learned our lessons, and not because they have not been written, or not even because we have not read them, but because we won’t acknowledge them.

I was invited to review a recently published collection of essays in honor of Jane Jacobs, “What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs”, gathering articles from a diverse crowd of intellectuals, academics, activists, acquaintances of Jane and honorary disciples. What I saw was that despite many of these people claiming to draw inspiration from Jane and her philosophy, few of them fully embrace what she truly stood for.

The first hint of this is seen in the epilogue, when editors Stephen Goldsmith and Lynne Elizabeth casually remark that Jane Jacobs “respected science” despite having “no academic pedigree”. This snobbism is matter-of-factly repeated again and again throughout the collection, culminating in urban designer Ken Greenberg’s befuddlement at Jacobs’ refusal of honorary university degrees. Without so much as raising the question or acknowledging it may be up for debate, all authors consider the academic and the scientific to be synonymous. To them, Jane Jacobs is a curious anomaly in the natural order of academic supremacy. This is why they form one of the very pillars of civilization that Jane warned us was falling, and none of them considered their own position in the matter. (There is not much difference between freefall and weightlessness – the difference is only felt when the ground hits.)

The reality is that Jane Jacobs, of all of them, was the true scientist. She was a scientist because she was always more interested in what was true than what was convenient. She was more interested in what she saw than what authority figures claimed was correct. That is what gave her the confidence to take on bureaucratic plans at every level. This is what motivated her to advise her otherwise authoritative visitor Mary Rowe to avoid the mindset of the bureaucrat, defined as seeking to solve the problems of other people.

Jane Jacobs’ search for enlightenment led her to investigate many fields and often the pioneering works of those fields. Some of the most interesting contributions to What We See are the follow-throughs of this pioneering work. Janine Benyus’ work on biomimicry, with its influence on engineering and design, was genuine enough to attract the attention and praise of Jacobs, and Benyus pays back the compliment with an essay that is easily the most informative of the lot. This type of raw knowledge is what we turn to Jacobs’ books for, and this particular account leaves us hopeful for the progress of science.

It falls upon Sanford Ikeda to cover the explosion of knowledge in complexity science and emergence in the final years of Jane Jacobs’ life, a topic which she almost clairvoyantly invented with the ultimate chapter of Death and Life of Great American Cities, where she distinguished between problems of single-variable organized simplicity and multi-variable organized complexity, then defined an entirely different method of study for the latter. Decades later, Stephen Wolfram suffers the derision of academics for proposing exactly the same thing, except with mountains of computer evidence in support of the claim. (It seems earning a Ph. D. by age 20 is not even enough to be scientific nowadays.) This would have been the ideal situation to elegize Jane Jacobs’ foresight, but instead we have an essay that consists of so many references that it becomes impossible to tell if anything meaningful is being said. Is it that dangerous to simply explain an idea that has likely been thought of by countless numbers of people before whichever academic journal peer-reviewed it and published it? In fact, it seems that pop journalist Steven Johnson gets most of the credit for emergence. I don’t know what his significant contribution to the field was.

We learn that Jane Jacobs was proudest of her economic theories, spelled out first in The Economy of Cities, where she described how economic growth happened endogenously by small businesses expanding into additional lines of works and forming trade relationships with other cities (a process she called import-replacement). This meant a total denunciation of the economic development policies of municipalities, which to this day continue to try and “attract business” with tax rebates, convention centers and other superficialities, (the creative class?) instead of developing the business they already have. It seems that the discourse about the current economic woes of the entire world is oblivious to any of these ideas, trapped instead in old debates unresolved since the last time the world economy choked and sputtered. Unsurprisingly, the same societies have been running the show all this time, and their senility has become a threat to our survival.

Can North American civilization survive? One thing that Jane Jacobs understood was how human societies followed the cycles of natural life. In life, death is inevitable. The only solution to death is new life. As such, she did not shy away from imagining new societies and polities, such as the province of Toronto or an independent Québec. It seemed to her to be not just part of the natural order of things, but essential to human flourishing. Yet the political dimension of Jacobs is completely left out of the book. I am tempted to ascribe this to simple narrow-sightedness by academics and other people with too little on their minds. The alternative may be too frightening to consider, that in our world considering such matters, let alone advocating for it, is a threat to one’s social or professional status. That would place us in the same dire situation as intellectuals during Soviet times. It would mean we still are in Soviet times, with only half of the foundation collapsed.

It was likely the case that Jane Jacobs was allowed to speak her mind free of any political backlash because her economic position in life was secured by her marriage and then improved by her prolific writing talent. As such, no bureaucracy could harm her for standing in their way, or breaking the rules. This impunity from bureaucrats, more than anything, is the basis for urban growth. It is therefore the contribution of Alexie Torres-Fleming, a “youth minister with no college degree” that makes Jacobs’ legacy. Despite having grown up in the very kind of megahousing projects that Jacobs sought to stop, she turned away from a life of relative comfort in Manhattan to return to her old neighborhood in the Bronx and organize its residents towards its improvement. Eventually obtaining the funds from the recalcitrant city bureaucracies, her organization represents the ideal of Jane Jacobs urban planning: that no one but locals are experts of their neighborhood, and any solution and improvement can only come from them. Her opposition to bureaucracy and its agents eludes many of the planners attempting to defend their profession and the need for planning. In fact, it requires a significant amount of planning to get a project like the Bronx River into motion. The difference is that in Jacobs` framework this planning comes from the initiative of the neighborhood’s people. Today’s urban planners attempt to artificially generate neighborhood feedback for their plans with their public hearings and pan-European common approaches. Those are as doomed as anything Robert Moses proposed to impose; only Robert Moses was honest about his plans.

When civilization itself is threatened, and we have been forewarned, how does one get on with the exercise of writing a book such as What We See? Perhaps the most important idea to retain from What We See is as a testament of the dark age that Jane Jacobs was last warning us about. We will not be out of it until we feel as free to express ourselves in writing as we do to express ourselves with our neighborhoods, our economies and our societies. Most of her declared disciples are too narrow-sighted, either by their own doing or by their precarious social status in what remains of society, to follow her down this path. I hope that I can. But I am just a blogger.

You can read What We See, but you should read the originals first.


I did a slow read through Death and Life over the past couple of months. Three weeks of that was while on a 12,000km road trip around Canada and the US, including numerous cities. I have been an active proponent and student of complexity theory for some years but I was totally shocked to see such strong implied alignment with Jacobs and complexity. I had to keep reminding myself as I read that she published the book in 1961, well before the current formality and level of interest around complexity theory arose (as you point out above).

I have yet to track down the Warren Weaver document she references on page 429 but I'm looking forward to digging through that as well. My complexity theory work has focussed on how we might improve organizational adaptability and what adaptive leadership looks like. Though I had organizations and institutions in mind for this kind of work, it's spot on for cities as collections of these types of things. The fractal nature of human organization also means there are aptitudes that are important at all scales with specific applications being infinitely variable depending on context.

Social network theory has some interesting things to say about city vitality and is really a nuanced aspect of complexity science turned toward the nature of our human relational networks, social capital, and how it grows and changes over time. I'm currently working down this line as a way of understanding things like persistent urban poverty.

As a fellow Canadian (Hamilton), are there places where these ideas are being embraced and explored here in Canada? I visited 401 Richmond Street West (http://www.401richmond.net/) in Toronto recently and there is a strong Jane Jacobs imprint there - and a large portrait in the main stairwell.

I'll subscribe so I can stay more up-to-date on what you are writing.


Thanks for this entry. I too think there's a great deal more to be talked about in Jane Jacobs' books than the scholarly world has done so far. But I also think most people don't realise how serious she actually was. Reading about her now, it seems she's often portrayed as a character, feisty older woman. And as such, she seems to speak to various urban actiontakers. But it really isn't just about neighbourhood rallies and painting flowers in asphalt.

I have actually yet to read her final (and as you said, darkest) book, which I'm certainly going to do next.

I've been trying for years to get a trained economist -- just one -- to walk with me through the pages of Cities and the Wealth of Nations and either to acknowledge that Jacobs is probably right or to point out exactly where she's wrong and why. To this day, none has ever been willing to give this book the time of day, even to debunk it.

There is a very good summary of Jane Jacobs's economic ideas here:

I just finished a Spanish translation of that document; hopefully Mark Rosenfelder will put it up soon in that site.

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