(May 12, 2016) Jane was anything but anti-development and anti-change. Her thinking transcended cities to include economic development and wealth creation generally.
A century after her birth, more than a half-century after the book that made her an urban icon, and a decade after her death, Jane Jacobs is a guru for the urban-earthy left, idolized for stopping the rapacious developers that would have rendered cities unliveable.
She was a community organizer who “stood by beloved neighbourhoods that were unjustly slated for ‘renewal’ and revealed political biases in the permit process for new projects,” Google stated, marking her 100th birthday last week with a doodle. “In Jacobs’ opinion, cities are for the people, and they’re safest when residents mingle on the street and in local businesses.”
Jacobs’ critics also marked her 100th anniversary — but by bemoaning her influence. As former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan told CBC, his city is only now beginning to recover from an unfortunate love affair with Jane Jacobs. In his view, her ideologically anti-high-rise, anti-development and anti-change thinking led to sprawl and unaffordable neighbourhoods except for the very few who got in early and then kept others out, profiting at their expense.
“She was very much against towers; she was against the highway, high-rise city,” Sullivan lamented. “Her own home (in Toronto’s Annex) is in an area that should have been densified a lot earlier. One of my favourite moments in life was when I got to sit on the porch with Jane Jacobs and talk about porches. I was such a big fan of hers but over time as I tried to densify Vancouver, I ran into people who were advocates of Jane Jacobs’ ideas and I realized then that there were some negative parts (to her legacy).”
Sullivan is confused, as are her devotees on the left who think she held the anti-development views they hold dear. Jane Jacobs was not “very much against towers.” I was a colleague of hers, and in literally hundreds of conversations that I had with her over a period of 25 years, not once did she ever express an animus towards high rises. Jane did object to high-rise towers for public housing — but then, she objected to all public housing — and she did object to the useless green space that planners forced on high-rise builders, calling such “tower-in-a-park” developments economically sterile. But Jane also thought some areas needed more high-rise towers. Her views on high-rises, as on everything, were never ideological; they were matter-of-fact, geared to solving real-world problems.
Her practical approach in the public policy sphere generally involved decentralized decision-making, as can starkly be seen through her role in Energy Probe Research Foundation, which she co-founded with me and others in 1980, and where she then served as a director for almost two decades. Energy Probe is largely in the business of critiquing central planning, showing how local governments are generally better suited than central governments in carrying out governmental functions, and how the private sector is generally better suited than the public sector in delivering services. To emphasize this, in the mid-1990s Jane launched Consumer Policy Institute, the foundation’s consumer division, with a concise explanation of the proper role of government in delivering commercial services.
“It used to be reasoned that public service monopolies would benefit from lack of ‘wasteful’ competition and economies of scale. They don’t,” she wrote in calling for public transit, the post office and long-distance rail to be privatized. “To govern well, governments must neither monopolize commercial services themselves nor foster monopolies by others. Government needs to be independent of business to avoid conflicts of interest that prevent honest regulation or invite corruption. Good service delivery must be responsive to customers’ ever-changing needs, not protected from customers by limiting their choices …
“Yet more and more we hear of government-industry projects and ‘partnerships’ that cloud what should be arm’s-length relationships between businesses and regulators. Little wonder that our federal and provincial capitals swarm with lobbyists for corporate interests that find it more profitable to court politicians than customers. Little wonder that the environment is victimized or that we become triple victims as consumers, taxpayers and citizens.”
She saw planners as rigid freezers of development; she mocked regulations
Jane was anything but anti-development and anti-change — the antithesis of the veto-everything advocate Sullivan described. She saw government planners as too-often rigid freezers of development, and mocked regulations that prevented, for example, commercial activities in residential districts. She held strong views about what worked and what didn’t in cities — diverse neighbourhoods did, slum clearances didn’t — but had no desire for centrally planned solutions. She wanted to let citizens and businesses experiment and to let the chips fall where they may, confident at obtaining superior results to anything planners could obtain. The leafy Annex whose density Sullivan criticized — and which Jane saved from the central planners’ development designs — is in fact one of Canada’s highest-density neighbourhoods. If the Vancouver Census Metropolitan Area had the Annex’s density, its population would be 30 million, 13 times denser than today.
Sullivan seems not to understand that Jane Jacobs’ legacy has been appropriated (misappropriated, really) by those determined to impose the type of results Jane favoured, not realizing her desired results — such as diverse neighbourhoods — can’t be imposed by planners. The misappropriators do harm, too, by failing to understand that Jane’s thinking transcends cities to include economic development and wealth creation generally. Because human ingenuity is unlimited, she believed, the planet is blessed with “unlimited resources.” In a message her fans of today would not want to hear, Jane concluded that planning for resource shortages is not planning for sustainable “economic development at all. It is planning for stagnation.”