If you live in a city then there’s a good chance that on the first weekend of May every year you can find people who hold free walking tours highlighting local insights, history, or hidden nuggets in the neighbourhood you’re walking. The people leading these tours do so in honour of the work and life of Jane Jacobs


In lieu of a Jane’s Walk this year, I led a virtual reading group (VRG) for Econlib through a discussion of selections from Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. 


It seems strange that a text destined to become a cornerstone of the study of urban planning begins by declaring itself against the enterprise of urban planning as it existed in 1961. But Jacobs opens her masterpiece,

“This book is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.”


During our VRG discussions, contributor Jon Murphy made an interesting observation: Jacobs offers not only a condemnation of city planning in her day but a new model for understanding cities and practicing city planning. In this she parallels Adam Smith, who saw his An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations as “the very violent attack…made upon the whole commercial system of Great Britain.” In presenting his attack, Smith laid much of the groundwork for modern economics. 


Jacobs found plenty to criticize in Adam Smith’s thought. She devotes pages in The Economy of Cities and Cities and the Wealth of Nations to criticizing fundamental assumptions in Smith’s theories, including his failure to question and reject assumptions underlying his four-stage theory of civilization and the assumption that countries are meaningful economic units. Jacobs also criticizes Smith’s emphasis on the division of labour as the driving economic force. But Jacobs and Smith had more in common than she may have cared to admit.


In Smith’s case, the “whole commercial system of Great Britain” had been preoccupied with wealth as measured by its stores of bullion, either mined or purchased by maintaining a favourable balance of trade—more exports, fewer imports. Jacobs faced a city planning establishment that seemed obsessed with controlling and understanding cities and their inhabitants by controlling and analyzing their built environment. They both confronted orthodox thought preoccupied with gold and silver, streets and plazas. With stuff. 


Jacobs and Smith were pursuing the same goal, though they may not have put it in these terms: they sought to improve their field by re-centering analysis around people. Though Jacobs’ human-centric urban analysis is now much more mainstream among committed urbanists, it remains tempting to envision cities as plannable and perfectible independent of the lives of the people living in them. And the “doctrine of the balance of trade” that Smith decried as absurd in the late 18th century remains a contested issue in public policy. 


Jacobs says that cities have to make room for even the plans of eccentric weirdos, and the only way that happens is if everybody participates in the business of creating the city. And Smith’s political-economic system measures the wealth of a nation not by the gold in its treasury but by the production and consumption of its people. All of its people. Not only the producers, and not only the rich and great. 


If there’s one thing that should be clear after a close reading of Death and Life, it’s this: Cities are made of people. Reading more of Jacobs’ work reveals that she thought that cities are also natural units of economic analysis (hence her criticism of Smith’s use of countries). Like Smith, Jacobs believed that economies are made of people. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that both authors also devoted time to theories of morality: Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Jacobs in Systems of Survival. 

After many of our reading groups, we’ve had the chance to ask the author we’ve been reading a few questions sparked by reading group discussions in an Ask Me Anything video. Unfortunately, this time that option wasn’t available—Jane Jacobs passed away in 2006. Instead, I spoke with Sandy Ikeda, a Jacobs scholar and professor of economics at Purchase College, about Jacobs’ human-centric conception of cities and economies. We discussed Jacobs’ thought, its implications, and what she might have made of some of the challenges facing the world today.


Janet Bufton (Neilson) co-founded the Institute for Liberal Studies in 2006 and has worked as a program coordinator with the Institute for Liberal Studies since 2013. She manages the Liberal Studies Guides project.

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