Authors: Jane Jacobs

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American economist and historian

Author Works


“Downtown Is for People,” in The Exploding Metropolis, 1958 (compiled by the editors of Fortune)

The Death and Life of Great American Cities, 1961

The Economy of Cities, 1968

The Question of Separatism: Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty, 1980

Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life, 1984

Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, 1993

The Nature of Economies, 2000

Children’s/Young Adult Literature:

The Girl on the Hat, 1989


In 1961 The Death and Life of Great American Cities upset many city planners by ridiculing their dreams of radiant cities with broad swaths of green and picking apart the profession’s most cherished axioms. Jane Jacobs subsequently moved on to become a preeminent urbanologist and one of the most original thinkers of the twentieth century, one who challenged assumptions in a contentious, commonsensical way–as architect J. M. Fitch once put it, by “clinging as closely to reality as a squirrel to a nut.” City planning, in contrast, has yet to recover.{$I[AN]9810001794}{$I[A]Jacobs, Jane}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Jacobs, Jane}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Jacobs, Jane}{$I[tim]1916;Jacobs, Jane}

Jane Jacobs

(Toronto Star Syndicate)

Jane Jacobs was born Jane Butzner in 1916 in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Her father was a physician and her mother a housewife. After graduating from high school, she got a job as a reporter at the Scranton Tribune. She moved to New York City in 1934, where she worked as a stenographer and a freelance writer. Ten years later, she married Robert Hyde Jacobs, Jr., an architect, with whom she had three children. She became an associate editor at Architectural Forum in 1952 and remained there for a decade.

Using secondhand anecdotes as well as her own encounters in such neighborhoods as Boston’s North End and the West Village in New York City (where she lived), Jacobs wrote The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a narrative of people connected to one another through their experience of place. She argued that small-scale improvements and diversity–in terms of use and housing stock–are the keys to successful neighborhoods. This contradicted the received wisdom of city planning, which saw slum clearance and large housing projects as the path to improvement. “The practitioners and teachers of this discipline (if such it can be called),” Jacobs wrote, “have ignored the study of success and failure in real life, have been incurious about the reasons for unexpected success, and are guided instead by principles derived from the behavior and appearance of towns, suburbs, tuberculosis sanatoria, fairs, and imaginary dream cities–from anything but cities themselves.”

For the most part, urban specialists circled their wagons and pointed out that Jacobs’s research was not rigorous. Philosopher and critic Lewis Mumford responded, in a surprisingly vituperative article in The New Yorker (1962), with a rarefied argument. “In the multi-dimensional order of the city she favors, beauty does not have a place,” he wrote. “If people are housed in sufficiently congested quarters . . . and if there is a sufficient mishmash of functions and activities, all her social and aesthetic demands are satisfied.”

In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs wrote that the classical model of cities having emerged from agricultural areas was wrong. Rather, the increased demand for food brought on by emerging centers of trade caused the cultivation of farmland. Through “import-replacement”–the process of importing goods, aping them, and even improving on them to suit local need–healthy cities help their hinterlands become more productive. The secret to this process is a diverse manufacturing center.

Jacobs, who moved to Toronto in 1968 so that her sons could avoid military service, advocated independence for Quebec in The Question of Separatism. Her arguments sometimes sound familiar: “Secessions are alarming to us if we think that making smaller things from bigger things is a step backward or downward.” Her next book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, continues her previous economic writing, noting that the economic philosophies of Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and Karl Marx cannot account for the phenomenon known as stagflation. To explain it, Jacobs jettisons the assumption that nations are the fundamental economic unit and insists that “cities are the milch cows of economic life.” Ensuring economic growth involves protective tariffs and breaking nations into “smaller sovereignties”–essentially city-states.

Systems of Survival is a strange and superbly ambitious book. It is a dialogue between five people who attempt to solve a paradox first elucidated by Plato: While certain behavior is based on trust (that is, giving money to strangers at the bank), much betrays a lack of rectitude (stealing supplies from the workplace). The group sees two codes of behavior dividing all human interaction: the Commercial syndrome, which requires trust, and the Guardian syndrome, which encourages dishonesty. Each profession, from police officer to shopkeeper, relies on one of these codes, and problems arise when people use the wrong code for their profession. The Nature of Economies follows this dialogic format, indeed bringing back some of the characters from the previous work, this time discussing how human systems fit into the natural world.

Jacobs’s ideas about city planning have been scrutinized for decades, and on the whole have been borne out. Planning journals still print articles whose findings agree with her ideas yet conclude with the tones of a hurt lover. (“It would be a mistake to blame a coterie of planners or of profit-minded developers for imposing an urban form on us.”) Her economic principles are less universally esteemed, although that seems inevitable given their tremendous scope. Every one of her books contains strong analysis and carefully drawn conclusions. In presenting them, she indulges in frontal attacks and unconvincing biological metaphors, but both the art and passion of her argumentation are unquestioned. She was anti-intellectual only in the sense that she believed that nonspecialists can cogently inform the cultural discourse. Of this, she is her own best example. In 2000, almost forty years after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs was awarded the Vincent Scully Prize from the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., in recognition of her influence on ideas about urban planning. Jacobs died on April 25, 2006 at the age of 89.

BibliographyAllen, Max, ed. Ideas That Matter: The Worlds of Jane Jacobs. Owens Sound, Ont.: Ginger Press, 1997. A collection of essays assessing the importance of Jacobs’s work.Berman, Marshall. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982. An enthusiastic appreciation of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.Boston College Environmental Affairs Law Review 28, no. 4 (2001). The entire issue is dedicated to papers presented at the Jane Jacobs and the New Urban Ecology symposium.Clubbe, John. “Jane Jacobs of Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Toronto: Urban Survivor and Social Organicist.” University of Toronto Quarterly 64 (1995): 324-332. Useful review of Systems of Survival.Glaeser, Edward L. “Cities and Ethics: An Essay for Jane Jacobs.” Journal of Urban Affairs 22, no. 4 (2000): 473-493. A review essay on Jacobs’s work, connecting her work on urban planning with her work on ethics.Hill, David R. “Jane Jacobs’ Ideas on Big, Diverse Cities: A Review and Commentary.” Journal of the American Planning Association 54 (1988): 302-314. A review essay on Jacobs’s theories.Lawrence, Fred, ed. Ethics in Making a Living: The Jane Jacobs Conference. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989. A collection of papers from a conference on Jacobs and her theories held in 1987 at Boston College.
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