Saturday, January 7, 2012

Jane Jacobs on the *oof*

I'm reading Jane Jacobs again, this time The Economy of Cities, which Jess gave me as a Christmas gift. And, oof! When I read The Death and Life of Great American Cities I did it on the L (as documented on this blog in the past), and now I'm doing it on the 5, with its lovely payment scheme where, as long as downtown Seattle's Ride-Free Area is in effect, you pay as you exit on buses leaving downtown. Some Seattle Transit Blog commenters call this scheme PAYPTTF, or “Pay As You Push To The Front”, and on a full bus that's about how it works out.

So in between giving and receiving body blows trying to deal with the flow of people through this bus I'm reading her account of how cities and urban work are the real sources of development and prosperity; not rural work, and not the earth, as many people have thought. And how the “impracticality” of big cities is one of the driving forces of progress. If only Seattle, not that big a city, could get over itself and make it practical to get people on and off of buses quickly. N├╝rnberg and Erlangen do it with no fancy smart cards or anything (my guess is at least some other cities in the German-speaking world are similar)! And their bus drivers give change!

Jacobs is largely thought of as a hero on the left, but her ideas often have something in common with Libertarianism; see this article from the Mises Institute. In The Economy of Cities she shows these stripes very strongly. She celebrates how the public good is served when people have the freedom to go off and develop their own work for their own profit. Certainly Jacobs' thought is wide-ranging. Her comments on development economics make perfect sense to someone that's read Amartya Sen; her comments here and on environmental regulations often point to the futility of common types of government action, as in Death and Life her most common targets for criticism were centrally-planned government redevelopment projects.

From where we stand today, her thoughts on environmental topics are interesting. She stressed the importance of recycling, and mining waste for usable products. Among other authors I've read, some of Paul Hawken's ideas come to mind. And, indeed, cities facing expensive waste disposal problems have made some strides in this way. She stressed the importance of chemical scrubbing of smokestack emissions, producing useful, profitable by-products. Unfortunately some of the worst chemicals we emit don't have a profitable economic use. So we're now stuck in the undesirable position where the combined actions of people working for their own good don't serve our overall good — the position where we really do need some kind of regulation.

In this sense, I might say Jacobs ended up being too optimistic on the ability of cities to solve their own environmental problems. But maybe she was actually right-on with her frequent pessimism that our cities, and our economy, is stagnating and failing to come up with practical solutions to its problems.