(March is Women’s History Month. Acton will be highlighting a number of women who have contributed significantly to the issue of liberty during this month.)
The lives and deaths of cities in America is certainly topical. Drive through Detroit if you don’t think so. On one hand, block after block of decimated homes create a landscape of, let’s be honest, death. On the other, people in the city forge ahead, turning empty city blocks into burgeoning urban gardens, seeking out entrepreneurial options in cheap real-estate and office leases. Do the lives and deaths of cities “just happen” or is there planning involved?
Jane Jacobs, wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in 1961, speaking out against what constituted much of urban planning. She said, in one interview, that urban planners were rather “hopeless”:
The chief planner of Philadelphia was showing me around. First we walked down a street that was just crammed with people, mostly black people, walking on the sidewalks and sitting on the stoops and leaning out of the windows. I think he was taking me on this street to show me what he regarded as a bad part of the city, to contrast it with what he was going to show me next. I liked this street—people were using it and enjoying it and enjoying each other. Then we went over to the parallel street that had just undergone urban renewal. It was filled with very sterile housing projects. The planner was very proud of it, and he urged me to stand at a certain spot to see what a great vista it had. I thought the whole thing was extremely boring—there was nobody on the street. All the time we were there, which was too long for me, I saw only one little boy. He was kicking a tire in the gutter. The planner told me that they were progressing to the next street over, where we had come from, which he obviously regarded as disgraceful. I said that all the people were over there, that there were no people here, and what did he think of that? What he obviously would have liked was groups of people standing and admiring the vistas that he had created. You could see that nothing else mattered to him. So I realized that not only did he and the people he directed not know how to make an interesting or a humane street, but they didn’t even notice such things and didn’t care.
Her next book, The Economy of Cities, drew criticism from economists due to Jacobs’ insistence that small businesses were vital to cities. In another work, Systems of Survival, Jacobs developed a viewpoint of economics and commerce that she said relied on efficiency, competition, thrift, honesty and the tacit understanding that agreements would be kept. Jacobs was critical of government projects that attempted to alleviate poverty, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, saying,
I am going to argue here that the cause of these failures goes deeper than poor planning, recessions, the price of oil, political miscalculations, corruption, greed, and so on. At their root is a terrible intellectual failure, for the prescribed strategies themselves are foredoomed to produce disappointment, futility, and debacles. The germane prescription is more roundabout. What backward, stunted economies lack is productive cities that can replace their imports—and enough such cities. This is the lack that makes such economies stunted in the first place. Overcoming it is the only effective cure for what ails them. This is so because productive cities, containing proliferations of diverse, symbiotic producers, are the only types of settlements capable of replacing wide ranges of their imports with local production in a practical, economical fashion. Hence cities are the only kinds of settlements that can generate the industry resulting from this vital economic process, and the further industry built upon it.