Jane Jacobs, who turned eighty-four this May, has won a large and devoted following since the appearance of The Death and Life of Great American Cities in 1961. There she maintained that, until relatively recently, cities responded to elemental human needs, even as they seemed to evolve aimlessly. Hence her defense of older neighborhoods, which preserved a stability and identity once provided by rural villages and tribal communities. Her targets were professional planners who bulldozed aging streets in the name of space and sanitation. This displacement, she argued, eliminated the complex street life of shops, small businesses, and pedestrian movement that made city neighborhoods both safer and more interesting. It also brought high-rises and suburban tracts, both of which Jacobs condemned as sterile and constricting. (How much more human public housing would be if projects could rent space to shops at their street level.) In effect, she was saying that cities are natural growths, and should be left to evolve spontaneously. If it were not for her warnings and her persuasive advocacy, a new highway might have been ruinously blasted across lower Manhattan. Her work has inspired other campaigns against urban folly from San Francisco to Paris. Jacobs’s influence confirms that books matter. It isn’t easy to cite another writer who has had a comparable impact in our time.
The Nature of Economies extends the arguments of her earlier books to production and trade at national, even international, levels. Her “basic premise,” she writes, is that “human beings exist wholly within nature as part of natural order in every respect.” The belief that nature has an ontological design has a venerable history, and shows no sign of disappearing. Jacobs enjoins us to heed nature’s mandates, especially when using material resources to enhance our lives. Still, her book is not an environmental tract. She doesn’t dwell on saving the dolphins or rain forests, which may reflect her urban disposition. Nor does she object to technologies such as those that genetically modify seeds and hormonally enhance livestock, since she feels that “constant self-correction” will keep them within natural bounds. Rather, she seeks to show that lessons drawn from ecology can improve economic systems and make them more workable and satisfying.
Her book takes the form of a seminar among five participants, all but one of whom are used to voice her own views, and it has an earnest, somewhat didactic tone. Still, the interchanges allow Jacobs to raise and answer objections, even if the character who plays her foil tends to concede too easily. As Jacobs once indicted city planners, she now cautions against policymakers who think that “reason, knowledge, and determination make it possible for human beings to circumvent and outdo the natural order.” Her book recommends humility. At best, we should use our wits to “develop products and production methods learned from nature.” We should ask why spiders can weave fragile webs in variable temperatures, or how plants capture sunlight and turn it into energy. There are also lessons to…
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