Jane Jacobs: Why Urban Planning’s Legendary Heroine is Famous for a Reason

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This post is also available in: French

Is Jane Jacobs the Justin Bieber of urbanism? That’s how Jim Russell - columnist at The Pacific Standard – describes her.

Jim Russell is special. And I mean that as a compliment – really, I do. The name of Russell’s game is urban geography. He started turning heads last year with a series of articles that examined how various cities and countries were “dying”: “Chicago is Dying”, “Ireland is Dying”, “Long Island is Dying”, etc.  As you can imagine, the most controversial of his “Dying” series was “Israel is Dying”, which stirred up a hornet’s nest of angry comments on the site (unfortunately, these can no longer be seen since Pacific Standard has closed its comment section as part of a plan to get more people to send them tweets).

He’s blessed with a writing style all his own, which essentially consists of short snippets of his own analysis (he loves to throw out punchy, nonsensical one liners like “I have a date with density” and “Light out for the territory, California dreaming”) tied together with long block quotes from academic studies, almost invariably followed with the phrase “emphasis added”. In fact, he says “emphasis added” so much that I almost didn’t notice when in his recent Jane Jacobs article he quoted a passage and then put “emphasis added” even though he hadn’t added any emphasis (emphasis added).

Though some less charitable people might be inclined to see Russell as something of an urban planning mad scientist, a Dr. Frankenstein-like figure stitching together monsters out of research papers, I prefer to think of him as the Frank Zappa of urbanism. His very ADD proclivity for jumping back and forth between complex concepts and his over-the-top style always take me back to the first time I flipped on “Peaches en Regalia”. And like Zappa, his ability to jump from one subject (or musical style) to another is enabled by the fact that he is talented at what he does – not to mention his marketable knack for stirring up controversy. I can’t help but think that if Zappa had grown up studying Le Corbusier instead of Edgard Varese, he would have ended up a lot like Russell.

All of this is fine and dandy, and I generally find Russell’s bombastic oddball style to be entertaining, with plenty of valuable observations to take note of as well. But I have to take issue with his recent article which takes aim at Jane Jacobs, surely one of Urbanism’s best known figures.

Though his criticisms of Jacobs are (as always) vaguely worded, he seems to imply that Jacobs is full of hot air, but has been put on a pedestal by a pack of credulous experts. In other words, she has little talent and is famous for being famous.

There’s no doubt that Jacobs is ubiquitous in the urban planning community. There’s even a Jane Jacobs day, which I wrote about last year (maybe Russell thinks I’m part of the problem). But as I see it, all that fame is deserved – or at least much more so than Russell contends. Here’s another musical analogy for you: Jane Jacobs is the John Lennon of urbanism. She’s a superstar to urban planners, but she deserves it (sorry Bieber fans).

Let’s dive in to the core of Russel’s argument in his article, which he’s given the incendiary title “The Pseudoscience of Jane Jacobs and Innovation Districts” (perhaps he would have preferred to call the piece “Jane Jacobs is Dying”, but this would be impossible as Jacobs already passed away in 2006). After kicking off with a paragraph roasting Jane Jacobs’s admirers, he then berates her key contention – that urban neighborhoods whose design encourages increased human interaction – is pseudoscience.

True to form, he’s got a long array of “emphasis added” block quotes to show us, the first of which are favorable of Jane Jacobs. The central concept these papers propose is the “Jacobs Spillover”: the idea that casual encounters on the street contribute to “the creativity and production of cities. After citing these quotes, Russell quickly whips out a number of reasons why in reality, these quotes only serve to prove that Jane Jacobs’s admirers are a bunch of suckers:

Emphasis added [author’s note: see? I’m not making this up]. I submit that ‘Jacobs spillovers’ are pseudoscience. See that black box between ‘walkable public spaces’ and ‘the creativity and productivity of cities’? We don’t even know if the two are linked. Even if they are, we shouldn’t assume the connection is causal. Instead, whatever the question, great urban public spaces are the answer. In the land of actual social science, the creativity and productivity of cities has been a mystery. In that land of uncertainty, the pseudoscience of Jane Jacobs has blossomed.

It’s important to note that the primary targets of Russell’s criticism are so-called “innovation districts” – master-planned commercial areas whose goal is to foster innovation through increased interaction between workers and residents. If Russell had settled on a specific definition of “innovation” and set out to prove these districts ineffective toward such ends, he might have had a case to make. In addition, I empathize to a certain extent with this criticism. Russell sees advocates of “innovation districts” as hucksters, propping up Jacobs as a messiah figure to legitimize their schemes. And you know what? He may be right. Jacobs’s conception of what made cities great was that they empowered the contributions of individual actors. In my opinion, it’s difficult – perhaps impossible – to centrally plan any project that replicates this.

We took Jane Jacobs seriously.

Toward the end of the article, his block quotes become critical of Jane Jacobs – and of course, these are the quotes we are supposed to actually believe. Russell’s supposed linchpin is an NYU study that proclaims that the real way to spur innovation is just for people to change jobs a lot. He has this to say about the study:

All the spillovers Jacobs observed are the byproduct of migration, not greater density and collisions in public spaces. The magic of suburban (or rural) Silicon Valley rests in labor mobility between firms. A cluster provides more opportunities for knowledge spillovers as long as talent can move from one company to another within the same geography. Hence, non-compete agreements would be a drag on innovation regardless of the quality of public spaces.

Emphasis in the original. Are we to believe this line of reasoning, that there is no value in concentrated areas, in walkability, in higher numbers of interactions? Can all of Jacobs’s work be written off as “pseudoscience”, dismissed by the oft-repeated scold of the academic that “correlation does not equal causation”?  Is it true that the “theory of changing jobs all the time” is the ticket to cutting edge companies, that a single NYU paper has unlocked the real reason for spillovers, using logic that is 100% scientific and proves beyond a shadow of a doubt the root cause for innovation?

In a word: no. My first issue with this reasoning is Russell’s framing of “pseudoscience”. We all know that pseudoscience sounds bad, and he assures us that “pseudoscience makes for awful policy”. But what criteria does an urban planning theory have to meet in order for it not to be “pseudoscience”? As a New York Times opinion piece points out, all theorists working in the fields broadly defined as “social sciences”, including urban planning, “feel that their disciplines should be on a par with the ‘real’ sciences and self-consciously model their work on them.”

It’s easy to imagine why they would want this. After all, the successes we have obtained in physics and chemistry are all based on methodical, “hard science” research. And without a doubt, the study of societal phenomena definitely benefits when it is done with methodological rigor. But as the article keenly points out and backs up with examples, “theoretical models can be of great value even if they are never supported by empirical testing”.

Though we may never know where to set the bar for evidence standards in the social sciences, it’s safe to infer from the argument of this piece that simply roasting urban theorist’s ideas as “pseudoscience” is not a productive way to determine their validity. Urbanism will never be Newtonian physics, nor should it be. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t have standards for determining its effectiveness. The article points toward what might be a workable standard, using a relevant analogy – maps: “The test of a map lies not in arbitrarily checking random points but in whether people find it useful to get somewhere.“ By this standard, it’s safe to say Jacobs’s ideas are much better than the ideas she set out to disprove.

However, the problems with Russell’s arguments run deeper. He skewers Jacobs on the grounds that she is not sufficiently scientific, but never once thinks to hold his pet theory of job transfer to the same “scientific” standard. Can you say “confirmation bias”? Maybe some people who read the NYU study will be convinced (as Russel is) that they’ve struck on the F=MA of urban innovation theory, while ideas influenced by Jane Jacobs’s thinking are pure quackery. But I’ve read the study, and I find that idea hard to swallow.

Let me be clear: I don’t doubt that IT workers changing jobs has a positive effect on innovation, as the study finds (though companies should think twice before taking this finding as gospel and mandating that all their IT staff move to a new company every couple of years). It may even be that this factor is more important than “Jacobs Spillovers” toward the specific end of innovation. However, this doesn’t mean that there is not a causal link between Jacobs’s ideas and innovation.  At this point, Russell could rightly argue that people claiming this link haven’t met their burden of proof, but it’s definitely something that could be investigated further.

However, using this finding to make the generalized claim that “Jane Jacobs is pseudoscience” is not just wrong, but hurtful. In Jacobs’s time, cities were almost uniformly characterized as an inherent evil whereas suburbs were an inherent good. She laid the ideological framework for the idea that cities were not just dirty, smelly places to be avoided by those with the resources to do so, but had valuable contributions to make to our society that could not be recreated, neither by suburban sprawl, nor by the “towers in the park” concept that governed urban renewal plans at the time. Though unfortunately her ideas didn’t catch on right away, she eventually helped people to see the destructive side of the endless suburb model – and more importantly, the value of the traditional cities that planners of the time were trying so hard to destroy.

To get an idea of the value of how right Jane Jacobs was, we need only look to Russell’s final example: Silicon Valley. As we’ve seen over and over again on the news, every day giant luxury Google buses haul thousands of innovative tech employees to their homes – in San Francisco. And, even though we can’t forget that “correlation does not equal causation,” it’s worth noting that a substantial amount of Bay Area innovation happens not in suburban (or rural, as Russell claims) Silicon Valley but in San Francisco itself. This doesn’t mean that Jane Jacobs is an instant solution for cities looking to cross off items on their wish list, like becoming “innovation hubs”, but there’s plenty to learn from in her ideas.

Far from being “pseudoscience”, Jacobs has more than earned herself a spot in the urban planning hall of fame. If Russell spends less time denouncing pseudoscience and more time making sense, perhaps he will too. In any case, he’s definitely a shoe-in if the urban planners of the world ever create an “emphasis added” award.

Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.

Images via Ryan and Sam Beebe

  • Ben Schiendelman

    I am really glad to see this takedown – Russell seems to be unaware of most work on how innovation occurs.