Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs

Eleanor Doyle (School of Economics, University College Cork, Ireland)

Competitiveness Review

ISSN: 1059-5422

Article publication date: 15 May 2017



Doyle, E. (2017), "Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs", Competitiveness Review, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 300-302. https://doi.org/10.1108/CR-02-2017-0017



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

A key, if somewhat peculiar, reference for researchers interested in cities, their development and growth is Jane Jacobs. The centrality of Jacobs’ footprint is evident in the range of explicit references to her work across research devoted to diversity and its importance relative to specialisation. Duranton and Puga (2000) identify that Jacobs was the first to present the forceful view, in 1969, that geographically localised diversity encouraged innovation although it was only in the late 1990s that sufficient evidence in support of the contention was emerging (Feldman and Audretsch, 1999).

In much of regional and spatial research, the hypotheses of specialisation (following in the Marshall–Arrow–Romer traditions) or diversity (following Jacobs) as drivers of growth are empirically examined. There is now a breadth of research supporting one or the other of these hypotheses for different regions, periods of time, clusters or sectors.

Jacobs’ peculiarity relates to her lack of academic credentials in Economics (having studied geology, zoology and political science), her revealed preference to forge a journalistic career and the impact she nonetheless managed to leave through her shared and published ideas. In Kanigel’s book, we are introduced to a thinker and the biography of the development of her ideas through a lifetime. Although she may have been one of the “uncredentialled”, she displayed a “lifelong fascination with the world right in front of her nose” (chap 1) and offered novel perspectives on issues, generated through direct observations and experience – perspectives that often conflicted with perceived conventional wisdom.

Initial chapters chart Jacobs’ early life, and no doubt the origins of many of her later ideas, but those that draw attention to the shaping and formation of her work The Death and Life of Great American Cities are Chapters 9-12. These provide great insight into Jacobs’ dissatisfaction with the disconnect between drawings produced by planners for new “projects”, designed to address problems – always so seductive – and the experience of life in such places. Decrepit, unhygienic conditions were acknowledged to have often been replaced, but the cost was measured, and experienced, by Jacobs in terms of the death of community and its constituent interdependencies. The breakdown and destruction of the intricacies of human relations wrought in the name of “urban renewal” fundamentally disenchanted Jacobs. Hers was a people-centric, humane, view of city life and city economies.

The chapters also reveal the manner through which the ideas for Death and Life developed: from a short conference presentation at Harvard University in 1956, an article in Fortune in 1957 and support from the Rockefeller Foundation from 1958 to support writing that eventually emerged in book form in 1961. Reaction was rather bimodal – even from some individual reviewers. For example, the sociologist, Herbert Gans considered that not only her assumptions were wrong and broadly faulty but also the work overall represented a “path-breaking achievement”. Another reviewer, in terms that ring true for some of the current regional economic analysis, described it as “dangerous to vested interests: to all our city planners, to almost all our architects”.

It is Chapter 19 (of 25) before Jacobs comes close to completing her next substantial book Economy of Cities in May, 1969. Targeting a question still occupying regional scholars – why do some regions boom but others stagnate – her focus was squarely on city regions. She saw specialisation through the division of labour as merely the organisation of work – whereas booming cities were places where new work was being created from the old. Her argument that “innovation, growth and progress can come only from small, almost casual beginnings” was seen by the economist Robert Lekachman as bold, important and different. Substantial disagreement was generated with some of the ideas, specifically Jacobs’ “cities-before-agriculture” hypothesis that city development preceded rural development. The view was radical, disturbing and denounced although still defended quite recently (Taylor, 2012).

By the time Cities appeared, Jacobs and family had decamped en masse to Canada. The third in her city trilogy, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, planned since 1970 took 14 years to publication. Nations were too large a unit of analysis, and the “salient entity” for understanding development was the city – where knowledge could trickle or flood.

Community activism evident in New York is reported on vividly by Kanigel in terms of “citizen Jane” warding off the threat to Washington Square Park by the Lower Manhattan Expressway. This effort required substantial time, effort and voice over many months and years, and it continued unabated in Toronto too (e.g. the Spadina Expressway). Jacobs’ appetite to fight for people and their place, however, was not stronger than potential threats to the family in the guise of the Vietnam draft that would require her son to be conscripted or face jail. As Kanigel reports, the Jacobs’ enmeshed themselves in their new locality with similar temerity and passion as in New York with Jacobs taking Canadian citizenship in 1974.

Eyes on the Street makes for compelling and entertaining reading on several levels. Those interested in broadening understanding of Jacobs’ key ideas, their context and sources will find much – both theoretical vision and pointers to the wells of evidence she dredged to support those visions. Those knowledgeable on Jacobs may well find new sources to follow-up which point to the breadth of her thinking and writing beyond the regional arena. So much of her work sounds relevant today: her Question of Separatism, although dealing with the Canadian question, appears on topic; her Nature of Economies compares ecological and economic systems; her Systems of Survival focuses on moral questions. As an oeuvre, Kanigel evaluates that Jacobs investigated how the world works. Her answer at a conceptual level includes improvisation, jumbledness and blundering (social trial and error): at a practical level, it is with plenty of observation, activism and vitality.


Duranton, G. and Puga, D. (2000), “Diversity and specialisation in cities: why, where and when does it matter?”, Urban Studies, Vol. 37 No. 3, pp. 533-555.

Feldman, M. and Audretsch, D. (1999), “Innovation in cities: science-based diversity, specialization and localized competition”, European Economic Review, Vol. 43 No. 2, pp. 409-429.

Taylor, P.J. (2012), “Extraordinary cities: early city-ness and the origins of agriculture and states”, International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Vol. 36 No. 3, pp. 415-447.

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