This is the history of Jane Jacobs that you didn't learn in school

Jane Jacobs showed that the 'real jungle is in the office of the bureaucrats' when she stood up against the big 'renewal' plans of famous urban planner Robert Moses.

Based on the following information, which of these two real (but now dead) people do you think would be best at "urban planning," the practice of designing and developing land use, transportation, infrastructure, and other important parts of building and running cities?

Person A has a bachelor's degree from Yale, a master's degree from Wadham College, and a doctorate from Columbia University. From there, this person went on to hold more government jobs in a big American city than maybe anyone else in its history. They were in charge of parks, buildings, roads, and bridges, among other things.

Person B only has a high school diploma, which is the only degree they have. They have never worked for any city government anywhere.

If you picked Person A, you might want to learn more about F. A. Hayek. The famous economist and Nobel Prize winner from the Austrian School once said,

The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design. To the naive mind that can conceive of order only as the product of deliberate arrangement, it may seem absurd that in complex conditions order, and adaptation to the unknown, can be achieved more effectively by decentralizing decisions and that a division of authority will actually extend the possibility of overall order. Yet that decentralization actually leads to more information being taken into account.

In some places, a college degree is still like a "union card" for getting a job. They may be a rough indicator of how much information is in a person's head, but information is not the same as knowledge. William F. Buckley once said that he would "rather live in a society ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than in a society ruled by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University." He said this for a good reason.

Person A in my model was Robert Moses, who lived from 1888 to 1981 and had a lot of power as an official "planner" for New York City for decades, under both Democratic and Republican mayors. He is the best example of how power corrupts, because the longer he stayed, the less he cared about different points of view.

His "renewal" projects were full of cockiness. When he used the city's power of eminent domain to destroy whole neighborhoods, he made fun of the people whose homes he destroyed. In his mind, the "city" wasn't made up of its people as much as it was made up of the concrete buildings he saw in their place. The people who lived in the city were the "jungles" that he would "clear out" and clean with the help of the city government.

Jane Jacobs, who lived from 1916 to 2006, was Person B in my model. She was a hero of urban culture if there ever was one. She was very smart and observant, and she was not afraid to say what she thought. She knew places from the bottom up. "Well-educated" Robert Moses saw jungle when he looked down on cities from above, but Jacobs' principled opposition to his grandiose plans showed that "the real jungle is in the office of the bureaucrats."

Today, May 4, 2023, is the 107th anniversary of the amazing Jane Jacobs's birth. No one can claim to be an expert on cities if they don't know what she thought, wrote, and did.

Citizen Jane: Battle for the City is an amazing documentary movie that I think everyone should watch. One of the many people featured in the film says this about Jacobs:

Never mind high-falutin’ theories and so forth. What are we looking at? What are we seeing? Do you want to trust some theory that somebody figured out sitting in an office somewhere, or do you want to trust what you actually see out there with your own eyes? Maybe the experts didn’t really know as much as they pretended to know.

When Robert Moses was at the top of his power and influence, he tore at the heart of New York City's lively, often mixed neighborhoods. He got rid of the lively streets and sidewalks and put up lifeless high-rise public housing in their place, which even the people who lived there didn't like. He liked his bulldozers, but he liked people more.

During one of the many public events she helped plan, Jacobs wore a sign around her neck that said "Conscience: the Ultimate Weapon!" in big letters.

Jacobs was a writer for a living. She was smart not because she went to college and got a degree, but because she knew how people and cities worked from living in them. Moses wanted to build a road through a park that people loved, but she led the people to stop him. This showed how smart she was. Jane Jacobs was Moses' David when he wanted to build a highway through Lower Manhattan, which would have ruined life in Greenwich Village and Soho for good. It's an inspiring story about how a small group of people stood up to the government and showed that the ruler was wrong.

In the name of "urban renewal" and with all the political fanfare of its ribbon-cutting events, Jacobs asked us to look at what government bullies like Robert Moses had actually done:

Look what we have built…Low-income projects that become worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly models of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy or vitality of city life. Luxury housing projects that mitigate their inanity, or try to, with a vapid vulgarity. Cultural centers that are unable to support a good bookstore. Civic centers that are avoided by everyone but bums…Expressways that eviscerate great cities. This is not the rebuilding of cities. This is the sacking of cities.

In this essay, I'm not going to talk about the famous fights between Jacob and Moses in great detail. Instead, I'm going to share some of her best ideas to celebrate her birthday and encourage people to read her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. There are also some great stories about her in the list of suggested reading below.

I hope that these words by Jacobs will inspire many new people to read her books:

"There is nothing more inert than a government bureau. There is nothing more inert than a planning office. It gets going in one direction and it’s never going to change of its own accord…The citizens are going to have to frustrate the planners. I thereupon began to devote myself to frustrating planners, and so did the whole neighborhood."


"I was brought up to believe that there is no virtue in conforming meekly to the dominant opinion of the moment. I was encouraged to believe that simple conformity results in stagnation for a society, and that American progress has been largely owing to the opportunity for experimentation, the leeway given initiative, and to a gusto and a freedom for chewing over odd ideas."


"I was taught that the American’s right to be a free individual, not at the mercy of the state, was hard-won and that its price was eternal vigilance, that I too would have to be vigilant. I was made to feel that it would be a disgrace to me, as an individual, if I should not value or should give up rights that were dearly bought. I am grateful for that upbringing."


"Extremists typically want to squash not only those who disagree with them diametrically, but those who disagree with them at all. It seems to me that in every country where extremists of the left have gotten sufficiently in the saddle to squash the extremists of the right, they have ridden on to squash the center or terrorize it also. And the same goes for extremists of the right. I do not want that to happen in our country."


"Advanced cultures are usually sophisticated enough or have been sophisticated enough at some point in their pasts, to realize that foxes shouldn’t be relied on to guard henhouses."


"There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served."


"The pseudoscience of planning seems almost neurotic in its determination to imitate empiric failure and ignore empiric success."


"The trouble with paternalists is that they want to make impossibly profound changes, and they choose impossibly superficial means for doing so."


"The first thing to understand is that the public peace—the sidewalk and street peace—of cities is not kept primarily by the police, necessary as police are. It is kept primarily by an intricate, almost unconscious, network of voluntary controls and standards among the people themselves, and enforced by the people themselves…No amount of police can enforce civilization where the normal, casual enforcement of it has broken down."


"To see complex systems of functional order as order and not as chaos takes understanding. The leaves dropping from the trees in the autumn, the interior of an airplane engine, the entrails of a dissected rabbit, the city desks of a newspaper—all appear to be chaos, but they are seen without comprehension. Once they are seen as systems of order, they actually look different."


"Historically, solutions to city problems have very seldom come from the top. They come from people who understand the problems firsthand because they’re living with them and have new and ingenious and often very off-beat ideas of how to solve them."


"Under the seeming disorder of the old [pre-“urban renewal’] city…is a marvelous order for maintaining the safety of the street and the freedom of the city. It is a complex order. This order is all composed of movement and change and although it is life, not art, we may fancifully call it the art form of the city, and liken it to the dance—not to a simple-minded precision dance with everyone kicking up at the same time, twirling in unison and bowing en masse, but to an intricate ballet in which the individual dancers and ensembles all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole."

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