Jane Jacobs on "Truth," Discovery and the Future of the Soviet Union

Samuel Staley's picture

As just about everyone in the planning profession now knows, this is the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities by urbanist icon Jane Jacobs. While Death and Life was itself iconic, Jane Jacobs was also a great public intellectual who continually built on her ideas in subsequent books and articles. 

As a graduate student in economics in the 1980s, I was fortunate to see an inspiring glimmer of those elements when Ms. Jacobs took the time to respond to a review essay I had written on her first three books--Death and Life, The Economy of Cities, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations--for the now defunct journal Market Process (Vol. 7, No. 1, 1989). My goal was to use the review essay to identify common threads in her thinking across these books and link them to a particular strand of economic thinking that emphasized decentralized, dynamic, and organic market behavior. I found her work extraordinary for its willingness to embrace interdisciplinary research and thinking to arrive at general conclusions about cities and the sources of their growth.

Of course, it helped that she thought my review was largely on target, but the most captivating part of her letter (even more so in retrospect) was her willingness to extend her own arguments even in informal correspondence. I thought some planners might enjoy two snippets from that letter, written on June 7, 1989 (and written on a typewriter but corrected by hand), that also reveal different sides of her thinking in her own words:

"Your comments that some of my conclusions and observations dovetail with, or repeat, those of people who've approached the subject matter from entirely different angles than the nature of cities, touch on the question of how to verify 'truth' in the social sciences. Much reliance can be put on experimental replication in the physical and biological sciences, but as a practical matter really controlled replication is seldom available to the social sociences, and when it is tends to involve trivialities. So there have to be other ways of verifying instead. Converging discovery is one, perhaps the main one. [P]eople approaching subject matter from quite different starting points can arrive at some of the same destinations, (as well as exploring by-ways not opened to one another). Without convering discovery, nothing at all can be very solid; my point therefore is that unconventional approaches to subject matter ought to be welcomed for that reason if for nothing else, but they seldom seem to be."

And, in an observation as important for the power of her ideas as well as their prescience for the times:

"However, you are quite right that it's [Cities and the Wealth of Nations] basically an extension and continuation of The Economy of Cities. Incidentally, if my reasoning in that last book [Cities and the Wealth of Nations] is right, the Soviet Union and China can't hold their realms together and at the same time achieve successful economic reform and prosperity. It isn't just that they are bloody-minded or go about things wrong, but that they're trying to pull off an impossibility." [Emphasis in original]

The world lost a great intellectual and passionate advocate for cities when Ms. Jacobs passed away in 2006. For those interested in learning more about her life, ideas and their impact, I suggest Alice Sparberg Alexiou's Jane Jacobs: Urban Visionary, Anthony Flint's Wrestling with Moses, Stephen A. Goldsmith and Lynn Elizabeth's What We See: Advancing the Observations of Jane Jacobs, and, based on advance reviews and word of mouth, Max Page and Timothy Mennel's Reconsidering Jane Jacobs.

I would also be more than happy to share the two page, type written letter (as well as the corresponding review essay in Market Process) to anyone interested. Email me off line at: sam.staley@reason.org.  

Sam Staley is Associate Director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee.


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