home > archive > 2006 > this article

Search this site Search WWW
Jane Jacobs and Adam Smith

By Thomas E. Brewton
web posted May 15, 2006

The late Jane Jacobs was a voice of sanity against Big Brother's urban planning. She and Adam Smith were reading from the same page.

Jane Jacobs died recently at the age of 89. She was most noted for her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which refuted the pretensions of liberal-progressive city planners.

In the works of both Jane Jacobs and Adam Smith, individualistic spontaneity, exercised incrementally, over many generations, is understood to be the wellspring of all of human society's effective and enduring institutions.

Jane JacobsJacobs wrote her book while living as a mother with children in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. It grew out of her successful opposition to the intention of urban planner Robert Moses to bulldoze an expressway through the middle of the Village's most pleasant parts. This would have displaced approximately 10,000 residents and demolished a huge swath of historic buildings.

From her successful opposition came a fundamental new perspective on urban planning: local residents, when allowed the freedom to do so, will create more livable and more effective neighborhoods than any master plan conceived by we-know-better-than-you liberals. Moreover, such neighborhoods can more effectively adjust, bit by bit, over time as new conditions arise.

She noted, for example, that the typical residential development pattern prescribed by liberal urban planners – mammoth high-rise apartment buildings clustered around small parks and walkways – looked wonderful to outside observers, but became snake-pits of crime and family disintegration in practice.

Greenwich Village had developed over a couple of centuries as a high-density neighborhood with low rise apartments and mixed-use commercial space. There were always autos in the streets and pedestrians on the sidewalks as a deterrent to crime. People knew each other and could keep an eye on the neighborhood. Such a neighborhood is additionally more interesting and pleasurable than the sterility of patches of grass and concrete benches overshadowed by buildings of 10 stories or more.

Greenwich Village was created by the unplanned spontaneity of thousands of individuals experimenting over the decades, keeping what worked and dropping what didn't. In contrast, with urban planners it's the whole thing at one shot; there is no adjustment mechanism, no opportunity for trial and error. Urban planning is the same mentality, on a smaller scale, that animated the Soviet Union: override opponents by government fiat.

As Leonard Gilroy expressed it in a May 2, 2006, Wall Street Journal article titled "Urban Planners Are Blind To What Jane Jacobs Really Saw": "...planning trends run completely counter to Jacobs's vision of cities as dynamic economic engines that thrive on private initiative, trial-and-error, incremental change, and human and economic diversity. Jacobs believed the most organic and healthy communities are diverse, messy and arise out of spontaneous order, not from a scheme that tries to
dictate how people should live and how neighborhoods should look."

Experience over the years vindicated Jacobs's judgment. Large blocks of urban planners' high-rise, textbook apartments in cities from Chicago to Newark had to be abandoned and demolished. Greenwich Village meanwhile continues to flourish and to exhibit extraordinary vitality, commercially, artistically, and residentially.

Adam Smith's 1776 Wealth of Nations was the first comprehensive inquiry into the realities of economic activity. He observed in the records of thousands of years of history that social institutions bettering the human condition were spontaneous, trial-and-error affairs involving many thousands of individuals in disparate locations, most of whom were unaware of each other and of each other's intentions.

"... division of labor, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends the general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual, consequence of a certain propensity in human nature, which has in view no such extensive utility; the propensity to truck, to barter, and exchange one thing for another....."

"The statesman, who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could not be safely trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it."

Thomas E. Brewton is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. His weblog is The View From 1776.

Send a link to this page!
Send a link to this story



Send a link to this page!
Send a link to this story

Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!



1996-2019, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.