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An Urban Anarchist

In the past twenty-five years American cities have become an enigma to the people who plan them. It is by now common wisdom that, as poor blacks and Puerto Ricans have moved into cities while more prosperous whites have moved away, the city has become the setting where unresolved national conflicts between the races and classes are being fought out. The question then arises: what relation does the city as a distinctive kind of human settlement have to those forces tearing it apart? People speak glibly of “urban violence,” but what is there about the conflicts between blacks and whites, or students and police, that is traceable to the peculiar arrangements of city life?

Questions like these have baffled the people who are supposed to be experts on the city. Academic researchers understand little more about them than do architects, city planners, or educational administrators. The questions, however, have a practical urgency. If racial tensions originate in ways that have little to do with the assumptions or methods of city bureaucracies, there may be very little that can be done by the institutions of the city to control or change these conflicts.

The “crisis” of planning cities—and here that overworked word has some meaning—is whether city planning can really improve the social life in cities. This has been a specially perplexing problem for the large number of planners, now mostly middle-aged, whose models for social planning come from the New Deal. They see social reform as the product of deals made in a central forum among diverse pressure groups. The play of “countervailing forces” in the city would, they believe, create an equilibrium among group leaders, who are continually adjusting their needs and demands to each other.

Yet if the conflicts between groups in the cities are generated by economic or social forces which are national, this conception of equilibrium may be meaningless. The fact that city councils, school boards, or planning commissions exist where “leaders” can fight for the interests of various groups in the city may not solve anything. Indeed, there may be many who are not even formally represented by these leaders; and those that are may not be able to follow their bidding because they are driven by other, outside forces.

The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association in New York, for example, recently arrived at an agreement with the city on ways to improve community-police relations, only to find most policemen so driven by hatred or fear of blacks that they could not participate in the programs created by their own leaders. In questions of race, labor policy, and education, centralized urban forums are increasingly proving themselves useless.

Thus the liberal majority among city planners have lately defined planning as the act of getting the cities “back under control.” By this they mean organizing the social life of the modern city into a single unit so that conflicts can be handled centrally. Control seems to them the primary problem: once the cities are made susceptible to central planning by a few in the name of the many, what is to be planned can then be considered. Thus, in New York, the completion of a Master Plan is described as the “first necessary step” in dealing with the city’s woes. Without a Master Plan drawn by professionals, the city’s planners tell us, the substance of New York’s problems have a “meaningless context” and cannot be solved.

Many people, especially during the last few years, have challenged these assumptions of liberal planning. Dissenters on both the left and right have called into question the fitness of planning by an elite which is often out of touch with its constituents. They point to injustices in urban renewal, labor negotiations, and schools as examples of how centralized elitism has failed. They have insisted that cities be “decentralized,” and that there must be more “community control.” But why is the local community more appropriate than the city for dealing with urban problems?

One of the few writers on cities who has dealt seriously with this issue is Jane Jacobs. It is ten years since the appearance of her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she argued that the social relations that people in cities found satisfying took place in the streets and local neighborhoods, because there people had direct contact with one another. She argued that the valuable aspects of city life were to be found in intimate and local experience, rather than in the workings of the larger city. This position was considered reactionary by the planning experts. Mrs. Jacobs said that neighborhoods in cities functioned better when they were left alone than when they were interfered with by central city planners carrying out projects for urban renewal, for example, or neighborhood cleanups. Such projects, she argued, shattered the local communities on which they were imposed. Moreover, she showed how urban renewal creates more crime, by removing people from the public life of the streets into huge and impersonal high-rise apartments. These projects isolate people in their flats, keep them off the streets, and thus make it easier for robbery and personal attack to be committed in comparative peace and quiet.

Behind her argument for the neighborhood as against the city lay the conviction that social life depends on slow historical growth, which is the result of direct encounters among people, and which does not happen according to an abstract scheme that can be imposed on a planner’s map at any given moment. Social planning of city life by commissioners and councilmen usually reduces human experience in a city to pre-determined functions which people who live in the city are supposed simply to act out; but the human actors, Mrs. Jacobs said, are unwilling to play the parts assigned them.

Here Mrs. Jacobs began to argue on two levels, and so misled some of her critics. For at the same time as she sought to describe how attempts at renewal and central planning fail, she also sought to define the values by which people ought to live in cities. In describing the neighborly street life that is destroyed by urban renewal projects she was creating a myth of the good life to be had in cities. Social myths have reality, of course; they suggest the values by which everyday events are to be measured. But some of Mrs. Jacobs’s critics thought Mrs. Jacobs had argued that her vision of a good city life actually existed for most city dwellers before the advent of central planning during the New Deal. Historians like Richard Wade pointed to the incorrectness of her interpretation of the past, on the assumption that she meant it to be a complete description of city life, something she had not intended. Herbert Gans pointed to the fact that many people in the city were apparently content to live in their private worlds apart from the life of the neighborhood. Mrs. Jacobs, however, would not deny this. She would argue that something precious was missing in the private lives of people when they were cut off from the streets.

Needless to say, to the city planning experts, Mrs. Jacobs’s views in this book were unacceptable. But although they scored numerous fine points in their attacks, the planners never confronted her central argument: that community life is basically anarchic, that a workable neighborhood cannot be created by some central authority but grows out of the common experience of its inhabitants. This experience, she believes, defines the conditions under which a social group comes to matter to its members. It accounts for the process by which a group of houses becomes a neighborhood. The intent of her mythmaking, and the unchallenged argument of her book, was the value of anarchy; she was one of the first modern urbanists to advocate anarchy as desirable in the social life of city people.

With her new book, The Economy of Cities, the anarchism implicit in her previous work has become more clearly defined. There are two reasons for this. In The Death and Life of American Cities, Mrs. Jacobs raised, but did not fully answer, the question of the effect of the city, considered as a group of diverse and often conflicting communities, on community life itself. Secondly, Mrs. Jacobs was faced with the problem of showing that an anarchic, free community life along the lines she advocated was capable of surviving. The substantive weakness of her first book may be put roughly as follows: suppose we accept that cities are healthy where there is an interesting, diverse street life and where people develop a sense of solidarity that convinces them that they “belong” to a neighborhood. The question still remains, how will these communities survive economically? In a technological society, central planning of housing, industry, labor, and so on may be necessary because the economy demands it; after all, economic growth does not occur simply as the consequence of the haphazard feeling of belonging together. What then is the relation of neighborhood and street life to the supply of jobs and the fresh investment needed for economic prosperity? This problem was pointed out by Lewis Mumford, another dissenter from liberal planning, and remained unresolved in Mrs. Jacobs’s first book.

Now she has moved to answer it and in doing so has magnificently demonstrated what is “urban” in the kind of social process she believes valuable. Mrs. Jacobs’s argument in The Economy of Cities starts with a simple premise: the economic survival and growth of a city depend on new forms of work being added to old forms of work. Because human societies have histories rather than mechanical functions which they repeat over and over, men’s conceptions of their needs, their rituals, and their desires for goods and services are subject to unforeseen change. Thus when adaptation in the production of goods and services is possible, that is, when new work can be added to old, a community has the power to survive over a long period of time.

Mrs. Jacobs shows the relation of her idea to city life by contrasting two cities in England in the nineteenth century. Both Birmingham and Manchester a hundred years ago were flourishing industrial centers. But most of the industry of Manchester depended on the manufacture of a single item, textiles, while the industry of Birmingham was built around a great many products including iron, textiles, consumer goods, etc. The functioning of Manchester’s industry was fixed—a certain number of enterprises existed to furnish the materials to make textiles. When the textile industry declined as a result of foreign imports, the “feeder” industries of the town had no immediate alternate source of demand, and declined or moved elsewhere.

In contrast to this “company town” pattern, Birmingham had a multiplicity of activities. The feeder industries of the town could divert their materials to the production of new goods and services as the needs of society changed, and still remain in Birmingham. For example, the companies which worked both in pig iron and coal moved easily to work in steel, and then in the present day into modern metallurgy. The diversity had created room for growth, and indeed, as new products stimulated whole new industries of supply, the addition of new work had enormously expanded the total volume of work performed in the city. Thus Birmingham continued to grow, while Manchester gradually declined.

The hidden process here is, in one of those formidable phrases which some economists are prone to use, the “urban import-export syndrome.” Mrs. Jacobs explores it at great length. The social importance of the phenomenon of adding new work to old, however, can be stated rather more directly: human settlements survive and grow as they become internally more diverse and less rationalized.

The subtlety of Mrs. Jacobs’s work lies in the way she applies this idea to her argument about the structure of cities today. Since the diverse activities she envisions necessary for survival feed off one another, the larger the settlement where these activities occur, the stronger its economy. Therefore a town with diverse work is more likely to survive than a village with diverse work; a small city more likely to survive than a town, a large city than a small one. The first social consequence of Mrs. Jacobs’s idea is to justify the expansion and planning of large cities, no matter how disorganized they may seem, as against the planning of smaller, more controlled ones. Thus she would find that the movement to create “new towns,” like Reston, Va., for example, is misguided because the planners have failed to understand the scale on which a good city functions.

A second consequence of her idea is that large cities survive and create new productivity precisely to the extent that they are wasteful. To function well a city economy, unlike that of a company town like Manchester, should not be efficiently organized to produce a product. Many small enterprises should be encouraged to spring up at random—and with much duplication of effort. Mrs. Jacobs convincingly argues that it is precisely the duplication of effort which pushes each manufacturer or shop to seek new markets and new ways to manufacture new products so that he may escape from competition. The more often wasteful duplication occurs, the more encouraging the conditions for new kinds of production and higher productivity. Duplication of this sort is, furthermore, more likely in a large human settlement, a large city, than a small one. Mrs. Jacobs cites as an example the way the garment industry in New York created markets for numerous feminine accoutrements from brassieres to cosmetics.

The third consequence of her economic ideas concerns planning. Mrs. Jacobs was accused in the wake of her first book of being “against” planning cities, even of being “against” large cities. The criticism was convenient but simplistic. For, indeed, Mrs. Jacobs has challenged the conventional planners to abandon their idea of the scale at which a city affects the lives of its residents. The established idea is that planning a city means trying to conceive it as an entity that can be controlled. In her first book, Mrs. Jacobs showed why it was socially desirable to treat a city as an organism too complex to be controlled. In this book she shows why it is economically desirable for cities to become less “rationally” controlled. What Mrs. Jacobs asks planners and community organizers to do is to devise new ways of increasing whatever diversity exists.

It follows that in revitalizing old cities or creating new ones, the first task is to plan ways in which work can be divided and multiplied. Some conflict will then take place. Mrs. Jacobs believes that, if the competing work places are numerous and small in size, competition will lead to the innovation of new products and materials so that some of the competing industries have a new field of their own. She assumes that conflict between many small groups does not lead to the kind of collusion and joint control of markets that occurs when large enterprises are supposed to compete. Her theory is that cities grow when craft industries proliferate, and the decline of cities can be traced to the monopolistic practices of centralized production, whether in the name of state capitalism or state socialism.

What does this theory mean concretely for the planning of American cities? It might seem that Mrs. Jacobs’s argument is a conservative one, which concludes that local enterprise is sufficient to meet the problems of cities, if only the federal government would stop interfering. Such an interpretation is wrong, on two counts. First, more and more “local” industry is coming to be merely the local branch of national or international companies; to the extent that such giant companies grow, the cities which contain their various branches face economic decay in the future. Secondly, there is nothing in Jane Jacobs’s theory that prohibits development capital coming from outside the city; the real question is how that capital is used in the city. If it is to be socially useful capital, it must be applied to the creation of diverse craft industries. That is, the planner must seek to put the cash resources at his disposal to use in such a way as to create competition and conflict—which he will not be able to control.

The impact of Mrs. Jacobs’s theory on the economic development of black ghettos, for instance, is that the community will be stronger as small, competitive enterprises spring up; the community will be weaker in the longer run if branches of giant industries like IBM or Xerox are established there. For when such industries move or decline or change as the result of decisions by their managers, the community again has developed no resources of its own. Blacks in cities become economically independent, according to her theory, only when the economy of the ghetto is independent—that is, when the enterprises are small, competing, and rapidly changing their character, even though they may appear inefficient and petty by the standards of the larger industrial society.

To my mind, the most radical implication of Mrs. Jacobs’s book is what it says about the relation between urban and rural life. The common notion is that urban settlements are created by the surplus labor and produce of the countryside. Jane Jacobs argues the reverse; the growing complexity of labor in cities, she says, creates the need for new agrarian work to supply the city with food and raw materials. The city is the creative center of society, and so the growth of the agricultural economy depends on the diversity of the urban milieu.

This idea requires, if it is true, that we make an enormous shift in our thinking about the process by which civilizations grow and decline in history. An historical convention stretching from Thucydides to Toynbee has assumed that the artistic, political, and religious values of a civilization, values for which the city acts as a bearer and transmitter, are a superstructure built on the primary productivity of the farms. The city of Athens grew, according to Thucydides, because the land came to support more people than were necessary to till and harvest it. Mrs. Jacobs says this notion is all wrong, for a civilization emerges only to the extent that the city makes new work for the countryside. Cast in this form, her argument has great importance for a debate now occurring in advanced revolutionary countries on the development of the Third World.

In Cuba, a conscious effort is being made to de-urbanize the island by asking segments of the urban population to move out to the provinces. In China, rural cottage industry has been encouraged in order to weaken the productive hold of the cities; Franz Fanon has argued for a similar anti-urban society in the African States. If Mrs. Jacobs is right, then these efforts to take apart the cities will follow the disastrous path of de-urbanization in China, since a dense settlement, anarchic in its production of goods, is the means by which new labor is added in the countryside as well as in the city. Mrs. Jacobs’s theory thus poses a critical question to advanced Socialist thought: if she is right, then the urban planning of much of the Third World may be on a disaster course.

In America, Jane Jacobs’s books have reinforced the current demand for decentralized power. She has shown how the anarchism implicit in a decentralized order is economically and socially beneficial to the city as a whole. She has taken the debate out of the narrow circle of conflict between blacks and whites; she has shown that in the struggle between the old-style planners, hoping to create order and efficiency out of the urban scene, and the new generation of urban leaders, seeking to gain independent power for smaller communities, the city as a living institution is at stake. If the new order loses before the entrenched power of the old, there is a great danger, Mrs. Jacobs argues, that the cities themselves will be choked to death.


How Cities Grow March 12, 1970

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