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Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Jane Jacobs

The news today was that Jane Jacobs, "noted urbanist", died at age 89 -- a Canadian citizen born in the US who will forever identified with life in and around New York City.

In the early 1970s I was fascinated by the work and writing of Lewis Mumford, a social critic and theorist who had been writing volumes since the early 1920s on every aspect of urban life. Initially I committed to writing my dissertation on the political thought of Mumford, but by the time I had made it through his writings up to World War II (he was prolific!) my enthusiasm for the project had "turned". But while I tired of Mumford, I did not tire of reading the work of those he inspired -- including Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that put the critique of Mumford to work in New York and viewed the city as an "ecology". (Listen to analysis of the relevance of her views today here).

What made Jacobs special was that she challenge the basic assumptions of urban policymaking at the time -- becoming an advocate for the unmodern, communal and messy in contrast to the neat and sharp lines of the contemporary urban planning world view. For me it was Gemeinschaft over Gesellschaft, and that became the focus on my dissertation -- a way of applying the lessons of both Mumford and Jacobs to the study of third world development planning.

What I did not realize at the time is that Jacobs had already put her views to the ultimate test by successfully taking on the most powerful planner of 20th century America: Robert Moses. Robert Caro spoke of Jacobs and her role in the 1962 battle over the Lower Manhattan Expressway in an interview today with NPR....

In recent years I have used Jacobs' work on ethical syndromes in my administrative ethics courses -- I did not think much of the book (Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics), but the basic contrast between the commerical and guardian syndromes is heuristically useful, and has inspired others to take it to the next (and even more useful) level.

All in all a very important thinker....


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