The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism

Jacobs, Jane (1916-2006)

Jane Jacobs, a pioneering urbanologist, social theorist, and activist, is best known for The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961. Her stated objective was to overthrow the rationalistic urban design theories and heavy-handed practices of the day, best illustrated by the “radiant-city” concept of the architect Le Corbusier and the municipal mega-development policies of the urban planner Robert Moses.

To Jacobs, a living city cannot conform to a single rational or aesthetic ideal because it poses a “problem of organized complexity” that emerges from the free interaction of millions of individuals. In this context, safety, trust, and economic development emerge in a spiral that depends on a spontaneous combination of population density and economic diversity. In other words, a diversity of primary uses, such as residential and commercial (an idea imperfectly captured today by “mixed uses”), attracts large concentrations of people, most of whom are strangers, to the public spaces in a given locale around the clock and provides a safe environment that encourages free and informal contact among them. This in turn forms the basis for social networks of trust that promote the utilization of local knowledge, entrepreneurial discovery, and serendipitous creative interactions—ideas that presage modern social-network theory. Although this dynamic is rare in small towns, it is characteristic of a living city, making it an incubator of new ideas. Such a city is capable of indigenously generated economic development.

While Death and Life discusses how a city depends on its neighborhoods and districts, her next book, The Economy of Cities, explains how cities depend on one another for economic development and expansion, and Cities and the Wealth of Nations argues that the global economy is a dynamic network of great but interdependent cities, some living and some dying. These books offer a consistent approach that takes the perceptions and actions of ordinary people as its starting point. She presents a distillation of this economic framework in The Nature of Economies, which overlaps, complements, and, to an extent, advances the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics.

Systems of Survival is perhaps her most libertarian book. It argues that the virtues appropriate to action in the market are fundamentally different from those guiding government. Confusion and dangerous contradictions arise when agents attempt to apply the moral system of one sphere while operating in the other.

Despite the libertarian nature of her writings, Jacobs disliked being ideologically pigeonholed. She advocated limited forms of government intervention at the local level, such as zoning for diversity. She also argued that largescale projects, public or private, threatened to undermine local communities and that cities were vulnerable to endogenous, self-destructive processes. But she remained skeptical of planning at all levels of government because it is incapable of comprehending local knowledge and needs.

Jacobs dramatically changed the face of the urban landscape both through her ideas and her activism, which, among other things, helped to stop a federally funded project to bulldoze a freeway through what later became a vibrant district in Lower Manhattan. Her activism continued in her adopted city of Toronto, where she and her family moved as a consequence of the Vietnam War. Her life and work continue to inspire and appeal across the ideological spectrum.


Further Readings

Jacobs, Jane. The Death and Life of Great American Cities. New York: Vintage, 1961.

———. The Nature of Economies. New York: Modern Library, 2000.

———. Systems of Survival. New York: Vintage, 1992.

Originally published .