Jane Jacobs: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Not many people have the imagination, intellectual depth and sheer courage to take on an entire profession and demonstrate how it is wrong. Jane Jacobs did. The renegade author and activist — who died in 2006 at age 89 — not only took on many such “impossible” challenges, she often prevailed. In her devotion to humanistic, small-scale solutions to big problems, Jacobs can be rightly understood as an early champion of what we now call the commons.

Jacobs’ 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, offered a damning critique of modern urban planning and the socially destructive effects of knocking down wide swaths of our cities to construct freeways and high-rises, which at that time was hailed as “urban renewal”. She championed just the opposite: vital urban neighborhood with street life, businesses mixed with housing, short blocks, a variety of building styles and heights, and density.  This “radical” view about how to make communities safe and appealing, based on simple common sense, spurred a new appreciation for classic neighborhoods that eventually curtailed the wanton bulldozing of our cities, boosted the historical preservation movement and inspired the neighborhood revitalization efforts that are bolstering many places today.

Jacobs never finished college and was not trained as an urban planner. She was a committed amateur. This is a key reason why her work was so insightful. She was not entangled in the deeply rooted assumptions and habits of the profession.

That’s what made Jacobs’ vision so powerful: it was informed by a rich sense of humanity and real world experience, not by ideological abstractions. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she wrote:

There is a wistful myth that if only we had enough money to spend—the figure is usually put at $100 billion — we could wipe out all our slums in 10 years…But look at what we have built with the first several billions: Low-income projects that became worse centers of delinquency, vandalism, and general social hopelessness than the slums they were supposed to replace. Middle-income housing projects which are truly marvels of dullness and regimentation, sealed against any buoyancy and or vitality of city life.

Jacobs understood that community is not as an abstract design principle; it’s an everyday experience. Community is not rational and orderly, but dynamic and relational.

She was subversive because she recognized that power often resides in unexpected places. In her later years, Jacobs challenged the abstract, quantitative focus of the economics profession and insisted upon the importance of morality in the behavior of markets.

Jane Jacobs was a pioneer in developing ideas that are central to the commons today: informal social norms, the bottom-up dynamics of change, the power of diversity, the limits of professionalism and officialdom.




Home page image: commons.wikimedia.org.

About the Lead Author

David Bolllier
From David Bollier's website: I am an author, activist, blogger and consultant who spends a lot of time exploring the commons as a new paradigm of economics, politics and culture. I've been on this trail for about fifteen years, working with a variety of international and domestic partners. In 2010, I co-founded the Commons Strategies Group, a consulting project that works to promote the commons internationally. My work on the commons takes many forms -- as an author and blogger; frequent international speaker; conference and workshop organizer; contributor to book anthologies; designer of courses on the commons; and advisor and strategist. I have hosted an educational film, This Land Is Our Land: The Fight to Reclaim the Commons; taught "The Rise of the Commons" course at Amherst College as the Croxton Lecturer in 2010; and served an expert witness for the “design commons” in a trademark lawsuit. I was Founding Editor of Onthecommons.org and a Fellow of On the Commons from 2004 to 2010. I have written, co-authored or co-edited twelve books. My first book on the commons was Silent Theft: The Private Plunder of Our Commons Wealth (2002), a far-ranging survey of market enclosures of shared resources, from public lands and the airwaves to creativity and knowledge. Then I extended this analysis in my 2005 book,Brand Name Bullies: The Quest to Own and Control Culture, which documents the vast expansion of copyright and trademark law over the past generation that has enclosed our cultural commons. In 2009, I published Viral Spiral: How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own, which describes the rise of free software, free culture, and the movements behind open business models, open science, open educational resources and new modes of Internet-enabled citizenship. The book that most encapsulates my thinking on the commons is my 2014 book, Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Commons, which has the virtue of being relatively short as well. Two other fairly recent books on the commons include The Wealth of the Commons: A World Beyond Market and State (September 2012, Levellers Press), which I co-edited with Silke Helfrich; and Green Governance: Ecological Survival, Human Rights and the Commons (early 2013, Cambridge University Press), which I co-authored with Professor Burns H. Weston. In 2014, I also co-edited, with John Henry Clippinger, From Bitcoin to Burning Man and Beyond: The Quest for Identity and Autonomy in a Digital Society (ID3 and Off the Commons Books) The anthology of 15 essays describes new tech developments that are enabling new forms of self-organized governance, secure digital identity and user control over personal data. From 1984 to 2010, I worked with American television writer/producer Norman Lear on a variety of non-television, public affairs projects. For many years, also, I was Senior Fellow at the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and co-founder and board member (2001-2011) of Public Knowledge, a Washington policy advocacy organization dedicated to protecting the information commons. In 2012, I won the Bosch Berlin Prize in Public Policy for my commons work from the American Academy in Berlin. This entailed a residential fellowship and travel in Europe. I live in Amherst, Massachusetts, a place that knows a lot about commoning and so inspires a passionate hometown loyalty.

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