Jane Jacobs: Urban Wisdom

Jane Jacobs and Don Alexander on Jane's porch.  I made an educational video (Jane Jacobs Urban Wisdom, 45 minutes) with selected interview footage I shot over a ten year period.  Jane describes her books and the evolving themes.  A good biographical survey of her many interests  and writings.   A transcription of her voice is printed here.

Jane Jacobs and Don Alexander on Jane’s porch. I made an educational video (Jane Jacobs Urban Wisdom, 40 minutes) with selected interview footage I shot over a ten year period.


Below is a transcription Jane Jacobs’ description of her books, writing and research style, as recorded in the educational video “Jane Jacobs: Urban Wisdom” copyright 2002, Don Alexander and Jane Jacobs.

The Educational Video, Jane Jacobs Urban Wisdom (40 minutes) is available at

(Jane Jacobs speaks)
Well, I had this idea that the way to find out how cities really should be planned and organized would be to look and see how they worked successfully. Well, how do you find that out? You do it by going directly to the subject matter, to the cities.
And the streets, I thought, were the most important thing in the city. How the streets looked, and how they worked. And I found that what I saw was very complicated. People weren’t just walking around in the city, or riding around in the city with nothing on their minds but where they were going. No, they were doing all kinds of things by the way. They were affecting the safety of the city. They were promoting their causes. The more you watched, the more interesting and amazing connections you saw.

(Narrator Introduction over Programme Title: Jane Jacobs Urban Wisdom)
Jane Jacobs’ writing career spans more than 60 years. Using what she calls a web-way of thinking, her writing and her ideas have influenced our cities and our understanding of economies.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities
(Jane Jacobs speaks)
My first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, I was pretty outraged at what city planners, and designers, and architects, and the politicians, and the developers who supported all these ideas were doing. I thought they were killing cities. They were very rigid. Regimentations– residents should be separated from working places, services and retail things that the population depended upon should be condensed into shopping malls. It was all boring, repetitious, and, as far as I could see, it didn’t work.
So I thought, cities have been around a long time. They have worked reasonably well. And, especially, you can find areas of cities that do work well, socially and economically. That’s what needs to be studied. That’s what needs to be observed. And see what’s important– what do you want out of housing? Or what you want out of shopping?

You think how all these things– the housing, the services, where people work, the cultural and institutional things– how they all affect each other. How the parks and the streets affect each other. What people do affects how the streets are used. The streets can’t be thought of as just for carrying traffic. They perform many other services. Well, that’s the way I was looking at things in The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
The parks– I saw that how they worked– well or badly– was very much affected by what was around them. The parks were the passive thing. And the active ingredients that shaped them were the combinations of uses around them. The way people were acting, or interacting, around them. And that gave the character to the parks. You couldn’t just count on putting things in certain places, and expecting the city and its people to react.
How the people acted and reacted with each other made all the difference to the things that were there. It’s how the people are interweaving in this tapestry of life– that’s what’s important. It’s a complicated matter– far more than had been realized– and yet it’s a perfectly ordinary thing.

Now, I didn’t realize it myself at the time– I had a little glimmer of it, but I didn’t fully realize– that I was participating in a kind of thinking that is now becoming quite common, but wasn’t then. For want of a better word, we can call it web-thinking– thinking about how things connect with each other, how they interweave with each other, instead of just thinking of things in a linear way.

I was a little ahead of my time, you might say, on it. But I flatter myself that I helped change my time by doing this. And again, I want to emphasize I wasn’t the only person. There were others doing this. This is a kind of change in thinking that is now permeating all sorts of fields. It’s one of the great changes in thinking, I think, that is occurring. I’m glad to have had a little part in it.

At the time I wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, the conventional wisdom was that cities were messy and disordered, and that one of the great missions of planning was to bring order and simplicity to them. Well, what was being called the disorder of the city, and the messiness of the city, was not messiness and disorder. This was a very complex form of order that I was watching. And without that complex form of order, things just fell apart.
Diversity of people, diversity of activities, what’s now called mixed uses– which is a kind of diversity– were all necessary parts of the complex order of a functioning city. Not segregated from each other, but mixed together.

Well, I was called old-fashioned, that I had an old-fashioned view of the city. The modern city was not going to be like that. It was all going to be neat, clean, orderly, quick to understand. It took a while, especially for academics and for planners, to understand that this was not old-fashioned at all. This is the way things work. But they finally caught on to that.

Here I was, just thinking of neighborhoods, and parks, and streets– the things in front of all our eyes. And it led me into all other kinds of things, purely because of this web-thinking. The things I was investigating in that book are affected by so much else. They’re affected by the economy of a settlement– the streets, the people, their faith, even the parks, everything is affected by the economy. One thing leads to another.

The Economy of Cities

The first investigation I did into economy, I called it The Economy of Cities. That book is really my most original and important work. I couldn’t help but be interested in this. Why some cities decline and others go on prospering? And why different fates have happened to cities from away back, and were happening right now– in the time I was writing– why did this happen?
Well, I thought the best way would be to look at the histories of as many specific businesses as I could, particularly with their origins. What had been important to them, to their success? It is the combination of imports with human capital. That is what drives the economy. Not the exports– the exports are a discharge of economic energy, a consequence, of this process.

In the course of this investigation, I began also to realize that creative cities– the motors of economies, in general. It was not the rural world that was the motor of the economy– which was the conventional wisdom at the time– but the cities were. Now, this is pretty well understood, although it’s often thought of as a modern thing. Whereas I could see that this had always been true, and why.
I also, while working on The Economy of Cities, noticed how they create replacement of imports with their own work– often with substitutes for the imports. That’s how responsive substitutes arise.

The most radical thing, probably, in The Economy of Cities is my contention that cities were in existence before agriculture was developed– in fact, that agriculture was developed in cities. This really went against all beliefs.
Now, it’s begun to be accepted. Well, it’s accepted in the form that, yes, there was trade before agriculture. The trade occurred in certain settlements that devoted themselves to this trade. Well, anyway, it was very exciting to me to make all these discoveries while I was writing The Economy of Cities. And that’s why I say that it’s my most original work, and, also, everything I’ve done since is a kind of sequel to it.

Cities and the Wealth of Nations

Cities and the Wealth of Nations is an investigation of how the economies of various cities affect other cities, how cities affect each other in what they do. And also how they affect the world outside of them. And this was a logical sequel to The Economy of Cities. Because if cities, as I thought in that book, are the motors of the economy, than what they do must affect everything else in the world.
Cities and the Wealth of Nations kind of fortunately hit at the right time. Maybe it was a good thing that it took me 15 years to do. Because a lot of people seemed ready to understand that cities actually were the motors of economic life– especially mayors of big cities were ready to understand. Although it was ignored when I said the same thing, really, in The Economy of Cities. But now it’s not ignored.

Systems of Survival

Actually, I think the book that has taken me the longest time was Systems of Survival. Not that I was concentrating on it, instead of on another one. But it was in the back of my mind.
I was noticing the way governments behaved in the work of government, and the way commercial things behaved in the work of commerce, and how different the two were, and how important it was that they be different. For example, it’s very moral to use force in government. We have police forces, we have military forces. Force is very immoral in commercial operations. You don’t get your way by force.
There’s a list of about 15 important traits of this time in the two sorts of work. People are very often not aware that there are these two separate things, and what is perfectly good in the one is quite wicked in the other, and vice versa.

Now, the reason that I wrote this book in a different form than I had ever used before– a conversational form of five friends– this is not a novel. It has characters in it, but it’s not a novel. It’s a form called didactic dialogue, and it’s a very old form. It’s much older than the novel.
The reason that I used it was that it turns out to be an excellent way of developing an argument– particularly when you want to look at the argument from many sides. It’s a kind of web-thinking, again, when things are complicated. You can, in an economical way, introduce objections, have them answered, have second thoughts occur, show how something is linked to something else. Quite economically, in the form of conversation, rather than in a more formal essay.
Also, I must confess, that I got bored. I started it as a regular essay thing, and I began to bore myself with that. So this interested me, again

The Nature of Economies

One reason that I did my next book, also, The Nature of Economies in the same didactic dialogue form, was that by then I had become so convinced that this is a really useful way of developing argument. And, as I say, especially complex argument, which we’re getting more and more of in the course of time. If I could do a little bit to help set a fashion of using this form, where it’s appropriate– in a modern way– that that’s a useful thing to have done.

In my book, The Nature of Economies, the main plot in that is that nature has certain principles. It has lots of details, but it has rather few principles– of processes– in comparison with the number of details. And I am convinced that the same principles and processes that infuse the history of life– in fact, more in the history of life, even the history of the origins of the earth and of our solar system– are basically the very same as the principles we use in our economies when they’re successful.
For example, there are certain principles of development. Now, what is development? Actually development is differentiation. New things that are built upon older generalities.
This is the way that the universe was formed. It’s the way the Earth was formed. It’s the way embryos develop. They’re generalized cells, in that case, that differentiate during the development, so that eventually they form all these detailed organs. This is extremely systematic, and there’s no way of having development without such a process.

Well, this is exactly what we do in our economies. What we call development is a whole series of differentiations that derive out of what we had earlier. And then they become generalities, and more differentiations occur.
Let me see, for an example of that. Well, just think of the computer, and think how the keyboard on that computer really comes down the lineage of typewriter development. And the lineage of typewriter development goes back into the lineage of printing. And the lineage of printing goes back, descending from the lineage of wood blocks– that sort of thing. That goes back into the lineage of carving.
Well, that’s one– roughly– one lineage that we use in the computer. But then there are the electronics, and they come down different lineages. The more that an economy has developed, the more material it has for further development. That’s why development can go faster over the course of time.

I think it’s rather thrilling to think of how the human race began its economies. It just began with things that our ancient ancestors found– sticks, stones, vines. Those were the generalities. And from each of those, and their combinations, it became possible to develop more complex things in a very systematic way– just the way an embryo develops, in fact. There are lessons in this, practical lessons.

For example, a lot of economists and politicians– and much of the public– seem to think that development consists in things, in possessing things, in possessing factories, schools, and railroads, or roads, or whatever. And that if you can give those to an economy that is poor and deprived, you will have given it development. But that’s not true, that this is development. These things were developed somewhere else. Development is a process, and it doesn’t necessarily come along with things

In our economic life, both the rest of nature– the planet that we inhabit– and the riches in this planet, are part of our habitat. We use those. But our own economies also are our economic habitat. And they have to be maintained so that development can continue occurring in them. So that one predator, or a few predators, are not just the masters of the whole thing, and stifle all the rest.

We’re beginning to understand how important it is that we maintain our planetary habitat, and how we get our comeuppance– very definitely– if we don’t understand how to maintain that habitat. I think it’s less understood how important it is to maintain the economic habitat. We don’t necessarily understand how damaging monopolies are, or how damaging, especially, the racism and sexism are.
Any kind of discrimination that makes it impossible for people to develop their own work is very damaging to a habitat, to an economic habitat. It’s very worthwhile, just in purely economic terms, to say nothing of how we feel about it socially, to keep chipping away at all kinds of discrimination. So that intelligence, or entrepreneurship, or sometimes genius, can emerge from any part of the population, and apply itself to the work that that part of the population is doing. All of this is part of habitat maintenance that I don’t think we really pay enough attention to.

You know we have what we call the law of diminishing returns. The idea is that whatever is easiest and quickest to cream off, you get first. And it’s the lowest cost, and then the cost keeps increasing. This is not a model of how our economies work.
The law of diminishing returns doesn’t make any sense unless you think also of the law of responsive substitution, which is that, over and over again, we invent something, develop something– maybe out of an entirely different lineage from the thing we were using– to take its place. This is why it’s not necessary to kill every elephant that’s left to provide ivory for piano keys. We can do it with plastic.

Our whole economies are built on responsive substitutions and on adaptations. And this is the most important kind of development.
Now, an interesting thing about that sort of development is that it always uses a large measure of human ingenuity and skill– which is nowadays called human capital. Part of the story of economic development is larger and larger proportions of human capital, smaller and smaller proportions of natural resources.

We hear about the footprint of a settlement. It’s a well known idea for ecologists, that a city makes a great big footprint on the Earth. By that they mean it uses an awful lot of input. But, as a ratio, the footprint of the creative city can be really quite small in comparison to the footprints of rural settlements, even.
This is very important, because the future of our ability to live decently on the planet without ruining it is going to be consist in reducing the footprint. And always enlarging the component of the human skill and the human effort.

Another very hopeful thing is the movement that’s being called nowadays biomimicry. Life has been developing things on this earth, developing processes, developing techniques and adjustments for some three million or more years. And has arrived at the best way of doing things, or, at least, very practical ways of doing things in all kinds of fields.
We can learn from this. This experience of life, over all these years, gives us a remarkable collection of techniques and suggestions. And, what with our consciousness, and our other attributes that nature has given us, we can deliberately study these.
A responsive economy, an adaptive economy, an innovative economy, is not predictable in advance. It’s full of surprises. Who predicted the worldwide web making itself up as it goes along?
The same was true quite a long time ago with the postal system, which at first made itself up as it went along. We’re inclined to look at things after they’ve been pretty well developed, and kind of assume they always were that way, or they started out established and big. Not so, and they were all surprises at the time.
Now, because a living, lively economy is not predestined– because it does make itself up as it goes along– it can’t be predicted. There’s no way of predicting.
This lesson, in principle, has been learned from the weather. The weather is not really predictable except for a few days in advance, because it’s making itself up as it goes along. Evolution is like that. Language is like that.

We must remember that what economies do, and what the units of economic life do, is inherently unpredictable. And trying to prophesize what’s going to happen– that’s a fool’s game. I’m not going to be a prophet. It’s hard enough to see what’s happening now, or what has happened in recent times.
It always amazes me how much people want predictions, and, really, how relatively uninterested they are in what’s happening instead.

There are two faces to fitness for surviving. One is to be sufficiently successful at feeding and breeding. And we are a very successful species, in that respect. One of the most successful the world’s ever seen.
We’re fit, in that way, in spite of all of our mistakes and all the dreadful things we do. We are really a very fit species.

The other face of fitness for survival is whether you maintain the habitat in which this happens. The great cats, for example– if they wanted, they could just kill one animal that’s their prey after another, just for the fun of killing them. But they don’t do that. They’re satisfied, oh, with a gazelle or two. And then they goof off.
So life has been very smart in seeing to it that what survives are the things that maintain their habitat. OK, let’s take that thought to human beings. It’s a mistake to consider that there’s some barrier between human life and human works, and the rest of nature. We are utterly part of nature. We are wonderfully gifted and endowed by nature.

We didn’t invent our own manual dexterity. This simple thing, the opposable thumb, is just so marvelous and permits us so much. We didn’t invent that. Our brains– they’re terrific. The endowment of a conscious brain– now, what we can do with these wonderful facilities, like our intelligence, our consciousness, and our manual dexterity, is as natural for us as it is for a spider to be able to spin a web and catch netted prey.
We should not be all that suspicious or ashamed of our ingenuity and our ability to make innovations. Innovation, itself, is natural to us. That’s a big part of what being a human being is– being able to innovate.

(Narrator Bridge)
In the 1930s, after writing for her hometown paper, Jane Jacobs comes to New York City and writes articles about different business districts.

(Jane Jacobs speaks)
The first one was the fur district. The flower district was another one. There was also the leather district, and the diamond district. I began to write about these, and sold articles on these districts to Vogue Magazine.
Those explorations that I made when I was first looking for a job in New York, they were important to me in ways that I had no idea at the time that they would be. They gave me some grounding for understanding certain peculiarities of the economies of cities. The clustering of these businesses in districts, for instance.

I got $40 an article, which was an amazing amount of money.

(Narrator bridge)
Jane Jacobs’s Ideas that Matter– (1997) a five day international gathering, built around Jane Jacobs’s writings and ideas.

(Jane Jabos speaks)
We think about nearly all our education. It’s always prep– it’s not the thing itself. It’s preparation for something, which is preparation for something. You know, we’re incompetent by the time we’re prepared.

You know, I think we are misled by universities and other formal intellectual places into thinking that there actually are separate fields of knowledge. And most people know that there aren’t. But they’re always getting victimized, somehow, by the idea that there are. And they’re delighted when, in some respectable way– like from this stage– it becomes clear that there are not separate fields of knowledge, that they link up.

( Narrator bridge)
In the Jane Jacobs neighborhood, and at home.

(Jane Jacobs speaks)
You know the kind of cheap, white plastic chairs we have on our porch? This has made an enormous difference in how much people use their porches. Because they’re so cheap, nobody steals them.

When our children were little, I would sometimes be at my wit’s end to make some sort of interesting meal. We’d make some boring stuff.
So I found that geometric themes were very interesting. And we would have a long meal. And everything in the meal would be long. You could have a round meal, and everything is round. You could have a piled up meal, and everything is a pile of something.

Writing and Research style
Here’s how I work. It’s not at all the way anybody taught me to work. Whenever we learned to write compositions in school, we were always told to write an outline first, and then to work from that. I’ve never been able to do that. I do try writing outlines, but they change radically over the course of what I’m doing, and they often mislead me.
I don’t see how you could make an outline before you write something. Because writing is discovery. I don’t know, before I write something, what I think about it. I may even have done the research, and I still don’t know until I’m putting it down on paper.
Over the course of time I begin to get some patterns in my mind. They just come unbidden. It’s not that I’m trying to think, what kind of pattern does this make? But connections form of their own accord.

I’m always on the lookout for two things– contradictions to it, that will explode it. And I also look for other instances of it, or things that reinforce it. And gradually I begin to have confidence after a while, if it stands up.
And I think of the things that turn up and become important to me as little earthquakes in the book. And they often make me recast the organization of it, or change some fundamental idea about it.
People ask me how do I find my examples. I don’t find them. Or, I’ve been finding them all along, the book is founded on the examples. That’s how I arrive at the ideas in the book. So by the time I need to use the examples, they’re already there.

I am not an artist. I’m just a non-fiction writer. But I do feel bound, somehow, to try to make what I am writing as much a work of art as I’m capable of. And that means concealing the labor that goes into it. Art doesn’t parade the labor that was expended in its cause. And I don’t like to do that either. So I like to make it seem as easy and natural as possible.

The audience, the readership, that I really value the most are young people.
I like the magic of my brain communicating with other brains, directly. Which is what happens with reading, with the collaboration between the reader and the author.
And young people– their open-mindedness, their hopefulness, their energy and enthusiasm– these are priceless. And this is a priceless audience of readers. I just love that.

It’s not bad at all, growing old. In fact, it makes it very interesting. Because you can see how so many things have turned out.

Another thing that I think is interesting is; look, I started with just the streets and neighborhoods. The smallest, most immediate things– and the parks– that you could in a city. That opened up to me puzzles that I had to pursue about the economy of cities as a whole.
That opened up puzzles to me that I had to pursue about how this behavior of cities affected the world outside it– outside cities– and how cities affected each other– with their replacements of imports, and with their new kinds of exports, and with their demands for imports, and so on. And the result of that was Cities and the Wealth of Nations. And that was taking in the world of cities and non-cities. It was bigger still.
The Nature of Economies is about the whole universe. But it all started with the streets and the parks.