Jane Jacobs ushered in a revolution in city planning with her classic Death and the Life of Great American Cities in 1961, inspiring a generation of urbanites to fight off the technocratic meddling of big government. She fostered an appreciation for the natural ecology of the city, the emergence of an exciting and productive spontaneous order. She rallied against central planning, mounting a Hayekian stand to defeat Robert Moses, the Great Man of NYC development. Jacobs’ New Urbanism represents a unique conciliation of Austrian economics and the political left. In Death and the Life of Great American Cities, Jacobs spins a tale of well-intentioned but brutally wrongheaded urban planners -some of the the smartest folks of the time- whose hubris leads to nothing but destruction and blight. Austrian economists, such as Hayek, have been telling this story for years, in all areas of government, but never managed the success of Jacobs.
Her story is really no different than that of L V Mises or K Popper: all bulwarks against the unending charge of high-minded, power-hungry technocrats, who are certain they understand how to poke and prod complex systems to induce a desired result.
Yet while the political left is suspicious of most economists, Jacobs is beloved. This mystery is partly explained by her evident passion for the city; economists have not done a good job convincing the left that their opposition to central planning for schools, for instance, is born of a similar commitment to education. For another example, M Friedman supported redistribution via tax credits, but the left saw his opposition to centrally-planned and executed poverty programs as a reflection of a disinterest in helping the poor more generally. Jacobs walked the fine line exceedingly well, opposing the high-minded plans of the best and brightest while maintaining her liberal bonafides.
Jacobs popularization of urbanism is even more impressive in the face of unyielding Jeffersonian rural romanticism. She turned the caricature of the city -a cold, uncaring, unnatural assemblage of vagrants, vagabonds, and villians- on its head. She communicated the miracle of spontaneous order better than A Smith and Hayek, translating the abstract logic of emergent economic order into something palpable – the city.
Only once she communicated the tremendous value of this emergent order could she enlist the political left in fighting off giants like Le Corbusier and Moses. Economists must realize that they will only succeed if they sell their narrative with Jacobs’ vigor and tangibility. Whether they enlist the philosophy of Popper, the urbanism of Jacobs, or draw from the new field of complexity science, the economist must make every effort to bridge the gap that Jacobs filled so well in urban planning.