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The passing of Jane Jacobs

This Article is By: John Sewell    On  Apr. - 28, 2006

The passing of Jane Jacobs

"Economic life develops by grace of innovating; it expands by grace of import-replacing.  These two master economic processes are closely related, both being functions of city economies." So Jane Jacobs writes in her 1984 book "Cities and the Wealth of Nations" (page 39) as she outlines why cities are at the heart of any successful economy.  It is also in this book that she describes in great detail the kind of problem we have in Canada with an over-arching national government unable to make policies to encourage healthy cities.

"Nations are flawed . . . because they are not discrete economic units, although intellectually we pretend that they are and compile statistics about them based on that goofy premise."(p.162) She continues "Cities within a nation get no feedback whatever from the national currency with respect to their trade with one another nor their other domestic trade either, for that matter."(p.176)  And she goes on, "Cities are the open-ended types of economies in which our open-ended capacities for economic creation are not only able  to establish 'new little things' but also to inject them into everyday life.  Unfortunately, given the deadly interplay between nations and their cities, we human beings are doomed to spurts of economic development only -sporadic and relatively brief episodes, now here, now there, followed by stagnation and deterioration."(p.224-225).

This is the problem with which Canadian cities struggle. The national government  refuses to recognize that it is the economies of our cities which creates the wealth. Provincial governments generally belittle cities.

In an earlier book, "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" (1961) Jane Jacobs defined the four characteristics of a successful city:  short blocks, mixed uses, medium density and a mixture of old and new buildings.  These are the characteristics really necessary for a strong economy and vibrant social life.  Planners and city decision-makers seem to have missed the importance of these four characteristics and have done whatever they can to prevent them from being present, whether through the endless curvy suburban street system, zoning which prevents mixed uses, either very low suburban densities or super high-rise towers, or by paying little attention to the important economic function that older buildings provide by supplying inexpensive space for new enterprises. In fact most land-use planning activity happens as though "Death and Life in Great American Cities" had never been written.

Jane Jacobs died on April 25, 2006 at age 89.  Her writings create a powerful agenda for those who wish to create successful cities.  It would be good if her legacy was reflected in the decisions  that we make about our cities.

-- John Sewell, Local Government Bulletin No. 65, April 2006