Cities and Web Economies: Interview with Jane Jacobs

By Phil Stanziola [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

(by Blake Harris) Q. Apart from the many other professions that have been listening to you, now economists, according to press reports, are also beginning to take you seriously. Which particular ideas would you want them to pay attention to in terms of how we view cities?

A. How important innovation is to us. How we cannot, and in fact we never could, just continue to do the same thing without courting utter disaster, because you can’t exploit the same resources too long. You can’t do the same thing monotonously too long. If there is one thing that will save us, it is innovating in time. We have reached a stage when we must mimic nature and how nature does things, not in a superficial way, but very deeply.

Q. There are some who say that cities are losing their capacity to be the crucibles of value-creation. It is a very dark view, that cities are ceasing to be the intellectual engines.

A. We are in trouble. Anyone who thinks about it and looks at life knows that we are in a lot of trouble.

Q. What happens if cities become these sterile, non-listened-to places?

A. This has happened historically quite a few times. When we say the Dark Ages, we mean a particular time in European history when that happened. But the more prehistory and the more histories other than Europe that have been looked into, the more clear it becomes that there have been quite a few dark ages.

Q. Do you have any sense that creativity is fleeing the cities, going off somewhere else where it feels safer, where schools are better? Are the bright, creative people leaving the cities?

By Phil Stanziola [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsA. Nothing goes on forever; the same thing doesn’t go on forever. For people who want to project trends, the one trend you know won’t happen is a continuation of what is happening now. It may be higher, it may be lower, but nothing stays that much the same. So we have all these problems of sprawl. It is very expensive in land, it is very expensive in energy, very expensive in time and money. And those are good reasons why it won’t go on. But that is not why it won’t go on. It is because every few generations comes along a generation that just despises what the generations before it did. That happened at the end of Victorianism. It also happened at the beginning of Victorianism, when the whole classic form of architecture and site planning that was derived from it…and even furnishings…were jettisoned.

When this happens, the generation that experiences this big change in taste–I don’t know a better word for it, but it is more than taste–they get absolutely ruthless about what the previous generations did. They build what would have been considered very inappropriate. They tear down what they want, they drive through what they want. That’s going to happen with the present suburbs. Some generation is going to come along that just despises them and is going to treat them that way and do something else with them. What will they do? I don’t know and nobody knows. You can see some germs of some possibilities now–the new urbanism. There is already a revulsion against modern architecture. And I think we are probably very near the brink of one of these big changes in taste again. And that always means big changes in function, too.

Q. There are communities where there is a very real choice between development or the preservation of the land, the water, the landscape, sometimes people’s health.. If you put that decision into the hands of the people, the community, they will almost inevitably choose the jobs and the development. How do you balance that with your thoughts that if you put it into the hands of the people, it will work?

A. Well, take Oregon, for example. They would go to where the logging was, set up their saw mill, do the logging, cut all the trees, and leave. And the town collapses. That kind of exploitation, not only with logging, but mines and all sorts of resource places, even farms–anything that is built on that kind of exploitation–is very insecure. Anything which is overexploited is going to end up in economic disaster for everybody concerned.

Q. So you have to regulate.

A. No, you have to do it differently. You don’t just exploit but do it more slowly. That’s no answer. It is a way of using the land differently so it is sustainable, not just so that you can lengthen the moment you can exploit it. The way you make things sustainable is largely by diversification, adding things that haven’t been done. You know, nature itself is not simple. It is very, very complicated. And any eco-system is an extremely complicated thing. The moment we try to simplify it and exploit one thing, or make some sort of a mono-culture, we are going to be in trouble. The way to deal with nature in an harmonious way is to recognize that it is diverse, not just in terms of the whole globe, but also in any single place. In one logging town, for instance, one solution to getting jobs was to put up cranberries, and there is now a nice mail-order business of cranberry products that didn’t exist before. And the wood that they cut, instead of just shipping it all out, if you can create jobs making products from that wood, you don’t need to cut as much wood and you still have good jobs, there are more of them and it is more sustainable. That’s the idea in general, you diversify.

Q. But who makes the decision about the diversification?

A. You can’t make people creative by telling them, “Be creative.” It has to be economically sound for them to be creative, and feasible both for the area itself and for what they can do. You can, however, look to see what is missing. You can’t just say to people, “Don’t do that.” You have to say, “Hey, you are able to do this.” You have to be positive, not just negative. The trouble with regulations is they are always telling you what you can’t do. You can show people what they can do, but not necessarily tell them they have to do it. You know there are so many bright people, so many good ideas, so much concern. You find this in lots and lots of localities. It’s there. It often just needs a little encouragement to show how to use resources to better advantage and that you don’t always have to do what you were always doing in the past, what your parents did or your grandparents did, if indeed the town lasted long enough for that.

Q. What are the limits of regulation? Is it possible to make a generalization about what we should regulate?

A. You have to be careful and not get abstract about this. You have to look at specific things, and they change over time. For instance, a few decades ago in Toronto, there was not a single outdoor café. Regulation against these had been made when the streets were full of horses and horseflies–when it really was not sanitary to sell food on the sidewalk and so on. The times have changed but the regulation had not.

In Toronto, as well, there were regulations about how many square feet of windows had to be with so many square feet of floor and the distance of buildingss from each other [which prevented the conversion of a lot of downtown spaces into living spaces]. These regulations had all been made at a time when the tuberculosis rate was terribly high. These regulations about distance of buildings, width of courtyards, amount of windows, were all calculated to combat tuberculosis. We got at tuberculosis in other ways, but these regulations lived on.

So what is a good regulation? Well, for one thing, knowing why it is in there and when it is no longer necessary. Knowing when a different regulation is necessary. But these are things that governments and bureaucracies are generally very bad at. There are planning departments which have learned to do a lot of things but they often have not learned to do away with useless regulations. Canada and the United States are just full of architects who just break their hearts fighting regulations that are destructive. They have wonderful ideas, beautiful ideas about what they can do.

Q. When you first moved to Toronto from New York, were there elements in Toronto, because it was a smaller city, that made you more optimistic that you could make more of a difference there compared to New York, where everything had become so politicized, so big?

A. No. I thought it was an adventure, how nice and so on. And then we heard about this expressway that was coming through right where we lived, and my husband said, “Oh my God, another expressway.” And we had to get into that. There are responsibilities you can’t evade if you find yourself in an expressway path. You have to do something about it. But, you know, I’m like most people in this. I have other things to do. I don’t like getting in these fights. I hate the government making my life absurd. I don’t want the government to set an agenda for what I have to be doing by it being so stupid that I have to devote myself to that. I have other things to do. And this is true of most people. It is really an outrage when you come to think of it. Here are all these people who get paid for government jobs, and we the taxpayers are paying them. And how are they spending their time? Making life miserable for us so we can hardly earn the money to pay their wages because we are so busy fighting them. That’s what I mean by making our lives absurd.

Q. When you start talking about the big role of government and that it messes around too much in people’s lives sometimes, is there a danger that one can become too free-enterprise, that one is forgetting the social network that government can provide?

A. You are putting words in my mouth. I never said that government was messing around too much in our lives. I said it was doing stupid things. That’s not the same thing at all. It may be doing too little in our lives and still be doing stupid things. It’s not an ideological thing.

Q. Ideological labels don’t stick too well to you.

A. You try, if you can, to get people to look at the specific thing that is happening and not try to generalize it as an ideology. Ideologies, no matter what kind, are one of the greatest afflictions, because they blind us to seeing what is going on or to what is being done.

Q. But you have lived and been civically active first in New York and then in Toronto. Can you describe the difference you found between the two cities?

A. I know very well what people are struggling to do in New York. In the old community I used to live in, I know how hard people worked all the time, harder than practically anyone in Toronto works on civic things. Because they were so much more under the gun in New York, so much more desperate. And I get that community–the West Village community–newsletter still once a month and see what they are going through. And every time I read it, I almost weep for them, how hard they are working on things. So, no, people in Toronto don’t work harder at it than New Yorkers. I think the thing is that they are institutionally so different. It is just so much more feasible here in Toronto for citizens to make a decent difference.

Q. Why? What is the different culture? Is it an individualistic as opposed to a more collective approach?

A. No. No. The minute you get into all these loose abstractions…I think it is much more concrete. I think it is the size of the bureaucracies in New York. It’s the huge amounts of money for certain things that became available to New York and other American cities from the federal government. And one attitude that does make a difference–I think that the American melting pot compared to the Canadian mosaic has been very destructive to the United States. But mostly, it’s the way their institutions work.

Q. You have talked about self-organizing states. Today, there are these twin pulls of globalization one way and national identities going the other way.

A. Everything in nature is self-organized, and a whole lot of what human beings do is self-organized. And there are all sorts of states that were self-organized. But as soon as you get above a certain size, and I don’t know what that size is, but we could easily find out by looking at the some 200 sovereign states in the world today. But as soon as you get above a certain size, it is not self-organized at all. It has gotten that size by conquest. And that is the very opposite of being self-organized.

Q. What does self-organized mean?

A. Well, it means there wasn’t a plan and command structure that made the thing, that decreed it and then shaped it. A great many things now which are done by command are not self-organized any more. They started as self-organized, because that is the way that creativity usually happens. For example, our postal service. People got documents and messages around to each other before there were any postal services.

And finally, when there was enough of this and enough custom and systems had grown up about who paid and how much you paid and how you sent these things, finally governments took them over and had institutional postal services. But it was a self-organized system before that. Commercial law was that way. There was no such thing as commercial law under feudalism, and the merchants themselves made their courts and supported them and abided by the rules. And they set them up wherever it was convenient for the merchants and ship owners. All of these were taken over by governments after they were established. Governments are very uninventive. That is one difference between something that is self-organized. It grows what you might call organically. Some things always remain self-organized and self-regulated.

Q. Lately, you have been fighting the amalgamation of a number of cities around Toronto into the new megacity of Toronto.

A. Well, I think this is so ill-conceived, the Toronto megacity, from so many directions, that there is not going to be much reason to think that we can work it tolerably. It is something that is going to have to be wiggled out of somehow, probably by transformation rather than reversal. One thing is, of the expenditures this megacity is going to have to make–responsibility and the funds are not combined. And the city won’t have the power, and yet is going to have to pay 80 percent of the funds for various programs, if I have it correctly. It is all out of balance. And that will be quite a disaster, as it always is when you get responsibility and power uncoupled from each other. The other thing is we are going to have much bigger municipal bureaucracies than we have ever had to contend with. And coming from a big city which amalgamated its boroughs and then began running downhill, I understand how awful it is working with great big bureaucracies.

Big bureaucracies have to go on the premise that one size fits all. I have always thought [that] they work to the lowest common denominator. It wouldn’t be any different if it was the highest common denominator. The idea that they have to put as much as possible into a common denominator–Toronto had escaped that with its different municipalities, not only because they were separate, but because they are small enough to make these distinctions if they wanted and do a better job. And a big one can’t. The idea that big bureaucracies are efficient, is that ever a laugh! If anybody has ever tried to deal with a great big bureaucracy, in comparison to a small one, which one do you think is more efficient?

But I also don’t want to sound too negative. Quite often, our governments have done good things. If the government is doing something good, support it. But you have to have a point of view that nobody is going to swat you and make you lie down just because there is a great big thing–not being intimidated by the size and difficulties of something. And keeping the idea that if the government is doing something wrong, you never give up on it.

Q. Without even trying to pretend to get a little sense of your ideas, but whether it is economics, how energy can overflow into other areas, or whether it is in terms of neighborhood activities and the creative things that make a neighborhood, where will the core of change and innovation be in this new megacity? Will they be destroyed? Will they still be there?

A. You know, you can’t predict these things. They are self-organizing. They are surprising. By cores, I take it you mean incubation modes and things like that–they happen where they will. In hindsight, you can often see why. But it is quite futile to try to predict it. And it is also futile to attempt to control it. That is mostly suppressing. These things come out of human creativity. You can just rejoice at it and try not to stop it.

Q. What do you do when you can’t predict? You don’t just sit there and wait for these wonderful things to start bubbling up.

A. Oh no, you are part of the bubble.

Q. So much of what you have talked about and thought about over the years in terms of neighborhoods, so much of it is about people going outward, whether it is on the street, whether it’s their neighbor, whether it is in their community. Yet there is a new concern that we might start turning inward with our computers, in our little nests at home. Are you concerned that this computerized world is also going to change the focus of the neighborhood?

A. [There is] a very persuasive argument that the computer, in the form of things like the World Wide Web and the Internet, is actually [giving] people firsthand experience with use of a Web and making virtual changes in a Web-like way. This is not real. But after all, quirks and quarks and atoms are not real, for all we know. But thinking of them, picturing them and seeing the world with these things, really illuminates our understanding. It may be untruthful and it may be wrong, but usually, each of these things gets a little nearer the truth. So this Web-thinking in the place of the mechanical, cause/effect kind of thinking is certainly closer to the truth. The use of the computer [may be] indispensable to this, both for the complications we have to understand and have begun to understand and also because of a different notion this gives people. You know it’s always been available to people that they be hermits. But think of how few of them have been. So, no, I don’t think the human race will suddenly be smitten with an overwhelming urge to become hermits because of a new machine.

Q. Do you see a more exciting time today, with these new technologies? Or have we become more cynical?

A. I think that the world is getting more exciting. I think the end of the Cold War, which made the whole world in many ways absurd…. Think of how many idiotic things were done, on both sides, everywhere, because of the exigencies of that cold war. It has been a great liberation to have that off us. But also, we are living, I am convinced, in one of the most intellectually exciting times the human race has ever gone through. We are emerging from this linear cause-and-effect way of seeing the world into a way that has really been led by the ecologists, into a Web world, beginning to understand relationships in quite a different way. And it is affecting everything. And no end of people have grasped this and are seeing the world differently and analyzing things differently and seeing possibilities differently–basically in a very hopeful way. And I think this is awfully exciting. People who are younger than I am, you are lucky. You can play a part in what I think can be an extremely hopeful stage.

Q. Are people puzzled that you are now into economic theories and even biology? Many people thought you were just into city planning and building neighborhoods. Do people shake their heads and not get it?

A. No, people seem to get it. They don’t really find it outlandish that one would also bring in biology. Lots of people have been thinking, in some ways, along the same lines. You know, I think we are misled by universities and other formal intellectual places into thinking that there are actually separate fields of knowledge. And most people know that there aren’t. But they are always getting victimized somehow by the idea that there are. And they are delighted when in some respectable way it becomes clear that there are not separate fields of knowledge, that they link up. That life and the Earth and everything in it really is a seamless web, and that’s not merely a poetic expression. It is a very functional thing, that it is a seamless web, and that it is possible to understand something about these webs.

by Blake Harris

Copyright (c) 2002 by Government Technology magazine. Reprinted with permission. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from Government Technology magazine.

About Contributing

Once upon a time, environmentalists lived in the forests, while the many of the rest of us moved the suburbs to be near the forests. Today we’re on our way back. Living near nature is an attractive notion, but many who tried it found nature soon vanished and they were left isolated. For both environmental and social reasons, living in the suburbs or the forest is not sustainable. Today we know cities are good for people and for forests. We know that the less land each of us occupies, the more space there will be for nature. In a city, we have a smaller footprint. Living in a city isn’t only good for the planet, it’s good for all of us. When home, work, shopping end entertainment are close, it encourages walking and promotes the active lifestyle that keeps us healthy. The New Colonist is about moving in from the suburbs, moving into and reclaiming towns and cities that have been depopulated, and building more housing in healthy cities. It’s about building smarter and closer-in new developments; building transit-oriented, mixed-use developments in new communities, and bringing more transportation options to communities where a car is presently the only option. Sustainable city living–chronicling the return from the suburban diaspora–is the focus of …Move In. City Life is good for you. It’s good for the your health. It’s good for the planet. Eric Miller Richard Risemberg