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A Prophet Not Without Honor

by Don Webb

When skimming newspaper headlines, I start by looking for reports that might affect the future; such reports may be on the front page or they may lurk as “sleepers” somewhere inside. Only at a second stage do I look for what has gone into making up the recent past.

On Wednesday, April 26, 2006, the Toronto Globe and Mail, “Canada’s national newspaper,” headlined the obituary of Jane Jacobs: “a fond farewell to an urban prophet.” That was entirely appropriate. Prophets do work that future generations can build upon, and Jane Jacobs’ passing is a milestone between past and future.

The Globe and Mail’s tribute might have befitted a head of state: on page one, above and below the fold, a color photo larger than 8 x 9 inches; two supporting articles; a full-page obituary and three more photos.

John Barber begins his column: “Was any writer of her generation as influential as Jane Jacobs?” One immediately asks: what was her “generation”? She died three weeks short of her 90th birthday. Round it off to the second half of the 20th century, since the appearance in 1961 of her first epoch-making book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Jane Jacobs photo Who was Jane Jacobs the person? Sandra Martin describes her as “A genius of common sense with a 20/20 vision of reality. Intensely private, she disliked public attention but came to accept a certain adoration.” It’s understandable that Jane Jacobs would have to get used to being worshipped: she was not only self-taught, she was noted in private for her completely unpretentious gentleness and integrity and in public for clarity, brilliance, and the unswerving courage of her convictions.

John Barber notes that she is “celebrated in Rick Burns’ epic documentary history of New York city as the woman who saved modern Manhattan from destruction.” In the late 1960’s she repeated the struggle, this time against the Spadina Expressway, which would have killed Toronto’s neighbourhoods.

Barber also says, “Appropriately it was in church when Ms. Jacobs moved me most: St. James Cathedral, February 24, 1997.” The provincial government of the time had amalgamated the province’s cities, unashamed of its conservative agenda to reduce representative government and impoverish urban areas. Jane Jacobs spoke to a spontaneous protest rally, “scathing, hilarious and clear-eyed as ever” and warned that the future would be grim. But she added: “A battle like this would be intolerable if we didn’t have a good time, if we didn’t have the joy of battle, if we didn’t have a high old time in this fight. Never, never underestimate the power of high hearts when they are combined with principled, unyielding wills.”

I don’t remember now in which book I first realized the power of Jane Jacobs’ ideas. Probably it was The Economy of Cities (1968). What’s important is that at the outset she intrigued me by posing a deceptively simple question. Which came first: farms or cities?

“Well, of course,” I thought, “farms, because people have to eat.” Not so fast there. If you’re a solitary hunter-gatherer who’s graduated to subsistence farming, perhaps, but that hardly seems to count. A farmer almost by definition raises more than he can eat. To whom does he sell the rest? To other farmers? No, to communities. And what do those communities — those cities — supply in exchange? Clothing, shelter and tools. Without cities there could be no farms; what would be the point? It was one of those moments where you smack your forehead with the heel of your hand and exclaim, “Of course! It’s so obvious that only a genius could think of it!”

From her conception of cities as centers of life, livelihoods, trade and innovation everything else flowed. What is, exactly, what I call a “city with a human face”? Jane Jacobs observes that cities grow from the sidewalk up, organically rather than by arbitrary design. Those streets are safest that are not thoroughfares but places where people live and work. Neighborhoods as well as entire cities flourish in diversity and stagnate in uniformity. The world itself follows the same model: national economies are an arbitrary convention; rather, economic growth depends on vital city areas scattered around the world, and those areas may vary with time.

Vancouver city planner Larry Beasly is reported as saying that meeting Jane Jacobs was to him like a scientist meeting Albert Einstein. As he escorted her around the city, pointing with pride to features he was sure she would approve of, she suddenly stopped the tour and got out of the car to have her photo taken in front of a small playground full of children. Beasly recalls: “She said, ‘This is the city of the future’. And we were thrilled.”

Jane Jacobs’ ideas are democracy in action. Her impact on urban planning is felt whenever a prison-like “housing project” is razed, a neighborhood-destroying expressway is stopped, and zoning laws promote not uniformity but “mixed use,” where small businesses and homes coexist — much as they do in my own neighborhood.

And yet her analysis of macroeconomics — again, head-smackingly obvious as it is — remains one of her greatest legacies to the future. As the 20th-century economic sectarians of both the left and right die off and take their “classic” economic theories with them, their descendants will discover what Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser is reported as having found: Jane Jacobs’ model of economic growth is the only one that actually works. What was the byword we began with? “A genius of common sense, with a 20/20 vision of reality.” Jane Jacobs’ works are above all clear and accessible to everyone, and her vision of city life — from sidewalks to the function of the world’s vital city areas — is seamlessly coherent.

Jane Jacobs’ family said after her passing on Tuesday afternoon:

“What’s important is not that she died but that she lived and that her life’s work has greatly influenced the way we think. Please remember her by reading her books and implementing her ideas.”

Her son Ned Jacobs reportedly joked, “If we don’t, there’s a Dark Age Ahead.”

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A review article of Dark Age Ahead appeared in our 2nd anniversary issue.


The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961)
The Economy of Cities (1968)
The Question of Separatism (1980)
Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984)
Systems of Survival (1993)
The Nature of Economies (2000)
Dark Age Ahead (2004)

Copyright © 2006 by Don Webb

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