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February 10, 2007

Richard Florida

Jane Jacobs' Legacy

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David Ellerman writes: "It seems to me that Jane Jacobs' thought is a goldmine for new perspectives on economic development. It takes some 'setup' time to get used to her terminology but it is eventually more than worth the effort. She was 'cursed' with a wildly popular first book that typecasted her as an 'urban thinker.' But she considered (personal communication) her most important work to be the work on economic development (e.g., The Economy of Cities, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations)."

Here's what Jacobs herself had to say about about this in a Reason Magazine interview with my old Pittsburgh friend Bill Steigerwald after the jump.

Reason: What do you think you'll be remembered for most? You were the one who stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people and said they were destroying the lifeblood of these cities. Is that what it will be?

Jacobs: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I've contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I've figured out what it is.

Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes. Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing.

I've gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote The Economy of Cities, I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn't import less. And yet it has everything it had before.

Reason: It's not a zero-sum game. It's a bigger, growing pie.

Jacobs: That's the actual mechanism of it. The theory of it is what I explain in The Nature of Economies. I equate it to what happens with biomass, the sum total of all flora and fauna in an area. The energy, the material that's involved in this, doesn't just escape the community as an export. It continues being used in a community, just as in a rainforest the waste from certain organisms and various plants and animals gets used by other ones in the place.

Reason: It becomes denser and more diverse.

Jacobs: That's right, and it is linked with new development, because the new kinds of things that are being contrived are able to feed off of each other. The trouble is, people have always been trying to put development and expansion together as one thing. They're very closely related. They need each other. But they aren't the same thing and they aren't caused by the same thing. I think that's the most important thing I've worked out. And if I am thought of as a great thinker, that will be why.


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Its good to see that Jane Jacobs has some proponents in the discipline. Its a shame and unfair that her work has gone so much unnoticed.

And why? Is it the lack of mathematics, the 'daring' use of words instead of formulas to express the ideas? Or that her words don't fit the terminology of the times? Or that she didn't have a PHd, or something of that ilk? Whatever it is, I think it must pale in comparison to her ideas.


S - I think things are finally coming around. Robert Lucas, the University of Chicago Nobel Laureate has been saying she deserves a Nobel in economics and Harvard's Ed Glaeser, perhaps the leading younger economist around also sees her work as incredibly important. R


Jacobs' insights,using the eco-system framework, also provides substantial alternative approaches for economic development of regions hard hit by the loss of industry. The key factor being Jacobs' "differentiation" as a precursor to the diversification usually touted by ED professionals.

In an eco-system, when a large energy generator/consumer is removed from an ecosystem, the impacts are wide spread and devastating. Overtime, however, the smaller generator/consumers systems, kind of a "collateral circulation" subsystem, formally overshadowed by the big one, become larger, concomitantly, and more dense.

This allows for the increased stability of the entire system. Once the entire system is more stable, the introduction of a new "diversification" species can occur. More often, one of the smaller systems becomes the big generator/consumer.

Think of a landscape which has been clear-cut of the big species of trees. If the soil has been completely ransacked of its root systems, it will take forever to revitalize it- kind of like a mill town where the mill was the only major system. It's really hard to "diversify" by replacing the mill with another mill/industry, especially if the other industry within the region is completely ignored. The regions that are able to rebound are those that build up the smaller, existing "collateral circulation systems" first. This supports asset-based development theories, and those supporting quality of life issues.

Jacobs' insights provide innumerable avenues for re-visioning economic development. I'm glad to see her ideas getting the attention they deserve


Sandy - Your insights are right-on. How can we help accelerate this shift inside the ED profession?


There seems to be little to link theory and practice as related to this topic. It would be nice to see something in the literature that provides an alternative to the rote "diversification" response. Mention differentiation to ED's and they look at you a little funny- not in their vocabulary, yet anyway.

Other than that, we might try group therapy, pharmaceutical agents or hypnosis.


I'd love to see her win a Nobel in economics, but can you win it post-humously? I somehow thought you couldn't, that it was not allowed.

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