Jacobs, Jane

Jane Jacobs is the author of The Nature of Economies. Her previous books include The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), The Economy of Cities (1968), The Question of Separatism (1980), Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984), and Systems of Survival (1993). Since 1968 she has lived in Toronto, where she has taken an active role in helping to shape the city.

[For book links, see the end of the interview.]

tompeters.com asks …

In the foreword to The Nature of Economies, you write, “A book is equipped to speak for itself more so than any other artifact, but to be heard a book needs a collaborator. A reader with a sufficiently open mind to take in what the book is saying and dispute or agree, but in any case think about it.” My question to you is: Why the need to say this, and the follow-up is, are you concerned that there aren’t enough collaborators?

JJ: No. I think there are enough of them, but there are a lot of people who approach a book or anything in print as either gospel or something just to be rejected; they don’t engage with it, in other words.

So they come at it with a preconception of what it’s going to say?

JJ: Or they may work it out as they go through, but they say, “I don’t believe this. Pooh!” And that’s the end of that. I like to think of a reader saying or thinking, “Why don’t I believe it? What’s wrong with it?” That’s what I like to know. Or I’d like a reader to think, “Yes. I agree with this, but we’re …” or “Yes. I agree with this, but why? What have I observed that makes me agree with it?” In other words, as I said, I like readers who are engaged.

Now is it important that the author of a document, whatever it be, somehow get that feedback from the readers?

JJ: Not necessarily, after all, lots of books are read after the authors have died; they aren’t going to get feedback.

[Laughter.] True.

JJ: The important thing is what it does for the reader.

Another line in your foreword says, “Readers, unwilling or unable to breach a barrier that they imagine separates humankind and its works from the rest of nature will be unable to hear what this book is saying.”

Why do you have to say that? And why is it that we as humans have found ourselves where we feel separate from all that surrounds us?

JJ: This is usually blamed on Descartes, and his division of the human being into the mind and the body as very separate things. Of course, we’ve learned better than that. The mind and the body, or, in other words, the brain and the other organs affect each other very much.


JJ: And still there’s a tradition that human beings really are outside of nature. They have souls; other things in nature don’t. They are made in God’s image, and other animals and other things aren’t. Human beings were given lordship over the earth and think that the rest of the earth is here to serve human beings.

And this is not just in one religion or one culture. This runs through many many cultures and religions and myths and legends. Our ancestors heard for centuries that we are set apart from nature, and a lot of people still believe that.

And why is that a bad thing? I don’t think it’s true, and something that isn’t true is always a bad thing. Now why don’t I think it’s true? Well I give quite a few of the reasons in this book, The Nature of Economies, showing that even though we haven’t thought of it this way, we have been working when we’re successful by the same principles as natural order, principles of development, principles of expansion, principles of correction, that kind of thing.

And then also more concretely in a way or easier to understand, we consciously work along with nature on a lot of things. Bakers know that they’re collaborating with yeast, a natural organism. This is so obvious.

Why else do we need to know this? Think how we started out as primates, humanoids, without anything more than any other animals have to work with, just what nature had given us as our equipment, which was pretty superb. And the sticks, the stones, the branches, the natural pigments, whatever we could find.

Our own hands and our own brains came from nature; we didn’t create these. Those and the found things that we had to start with, that’s what we had to begin our economies, and start everything we’ve got. Now what could be more natural than that?


JJ: Right.

You believe in evolution, but you take issue with it I believe at a couple of places in the book. There’s a discussion about altruism.

JJ: Yes.

I just wonder if you could talk for a minute about what I believe is a feminist slant in a couple of places. You refer to economies where women aren’t allowed to change or develop their work or to emerge into the main economy, as poor stagnating economies, because they’re losing out on potential innovation by half the population.

In a discussion of altruism, it’s always been from a man’s point of view, when they talk about soldiers going off to war, and, well, if they’re giving their lives for others, then how can that gene for altruism be passed along because all these 22-year-old soldiers are dead, and so not passing on this gene.

But what has never been considered in this discussion is all the women throughout time who have given their lives in childbirth and how they’ve never been considered altruistic; is that accurate?

JJ: Yes. And that the women have given their lives in childbirth or their freedom or their well-being in other ways. The women who have been willing and able to do this have actually produced progeny, which is the opposite of the question with the men who go off as soldiers, as young fellows.

The big puzzle in evolution, as you mentioned, is that such men’s genes are lost, they don’t produce progeny, but the women who make these self-sacrifices are the very ones whose genes are not lost, which doesn’t make an evolutionary puzzle of altruism. I think it was very much a question of Darwin’s having lived at the height of British Empire building, and while that didn’t form his theory of evolution or natural selection, it certainly was the context of it. And it was the context that interested what I’ll call his collaborators, his readers.


JJ: So I don’t know whether childbirth and infant care is where altruism comes from, but it’s just a whole lot more plausible than the really knotty bunch of contradictions that came from the military idea. Now the other feminist thing you mentioned was—where women are prevented from working and can’t really develop what they do in an economy, the economy is very poor and often grows poorer with time.

I don’t think this is particularly feminist, because I mentioned caste systems, which of course include men, and religious discrimination and slavery. They aren’t gender-based, and they have the same effect, and I made a real point about that.

So the idea is that if there are types of work predominantly practiced by certain groups in a society, and those groups are discriminated against and can’t develop their work, the work suffers. It gets backward.

Now this is very important of course with women, as well as the others we discriminate against, because in traditional divisions of labor, much work like making garments, cleaning things, food preparation, care of little children—these were completely the province of women.

And if women were not allowed, let alone not encouraged to develop their work, that work just stayed backward, and that’s exactly what you’ll find in countries where women are severely discriminated against. It’s very ironic that the most macho countries are the most pitifully weak countries.

In this book, you use five fictional characters to facilitate this discussion of economies of nature. But they’re all New Yorkers, and you yourself now live in Toronto and have since, I guess, 1968 or thereabouts. Why do you use the New Yorkers? I believe you used them in another book, The Systems of Survival. Is that right?

JJ: That’s right. Not all of the same ones, but three of the same ones. Yes. I started out actually thinking of them as Torontonians, because the kind of people they are could just as plausibly be in Toronto as in New York, but I couldn’t make them talk to each other. They were so polite they wouldn’t get to grips with their disagreements or the points they wanted to make.


JJ: This is not so strange because, you know, Canadians are awfully polite and civil.

Yes, I’m aware of that.

JJ: And that’s nice. I appreciate that, but you can’t say to them or they won’t say to you, “Hey, that’s stupid, and here’s why.” So it was all, you know, an exercise in manners instead of getting the disagreements going that would make the points I wanted to make.

So there’s no intent there in having New Yorkers serve as every person or every people of the world?

JJ: No. Well I just turned these same people into New Yorkers one day, and wow! they began talking. Now of course all of this goes on in my own head. So I can’t blame New Yorkers for this or Torontonians for this, but some kind of thing that was a block in my writing at one point, and I got it unblocked.

That’s very interesting. It’s a novelistic dilemma.

JJ: Sure it is, and it’s true that these characters, even though they’re not in a novel, they become alive for you with wills of their own, and the author has to listen to them, as much as them listening to the author. This is all foolish in a way, of course, but it’s the way people who are writing about characters get in a relationship to their characters.

And is there any character in this book that is you more than any of the other characters?

JJ: No. All of them are certainly a part of me because they came out of my head, but they also, all of them, have attributes of other people I’ve known. Not necessarily people who have been important to me, just people that have something or other that’s useful to me.

So there again plucking out that little characteristic for the use of the character?

JJ: Yes.

You talk about webs of co-development. The web is the thing that I’m interested in here. You’re writing about webs and a number of the other authors I’ve interviewed have also written about this notion of web as networks or as ways of thinking.

And we’ve got the World Wide Web, obviously. This notion of web seems to have burst out of nowhere within the last few years. Why has there been such a huge shift in thinking and understanding of everything being connected through webs and not so linearly.

JJ: That thing that you just said I think is the salient point. This notion of connectedness, the seamless web, is not something that was invented lately, of course. But it’s something that people have been willing to try to come to grips with only fairly lately, because formerly it was easier to do linear thinking, especially about cause and effect.

There were a lot of things in science that could be discovered that way, but, of course, it was limited, and so it left a lot of things unexplored and even gave erroneous ideas about some things. We have very poor cost-benefit studies, for instance, on a lot of things, because too many other cogent factors enter into them, and if these are ignored, they make the studies meaningless.

This is something that’s been dawning on more and more people. Back when I wrote my first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in the last chapter I talked about this, and I drew a lot on a science writer, Warren Weaver. [Warren Weaver (1894-1978) was the director of the Natural Sciences Division (1932-1955) and vice-president (1955-1959) of the Rockefeller Foundation.]

He talked about three ways you could approach problems, and they were different kinds of problems you couldn’t deal with unless you had these three methods. This was 40 years ago, back in the ’60s. The ones that were being dealt with in only a very limited way were what he called problems of organized complexity. They’re what are now called “web problems” or “information theory,” that kind of thing.

So you see, this has been percolating for quite a long time. I believe Weaver wrote in the late 1950s, and he got his impetus from people who were working in the life sciences. Dealing with living molecules, that kind of thing. And they needed an idea of organized complexity. You can see how it applies to an organism, the human body, plants too.

So it’s half a century now since some people have become aware of the importance of this kind of problem, and are thinking this way. It’s such a jolt compared to the way it used to be, when only linear reasoning was deemed to be orderly or scientific or logical. It’s taken quite a long time to shift to this web way, but I guess it has hit a tipping point recently, and lots of people are catching on now, that’s good. We need this.

In an interview, somebody once asked you about your place in the world, and you replied, “Once you know about fractals you know you live in all of them.” Will you talk about what fractals are and why you find them so significant?

JJ: Many of the same features appear on different scales, very small and bigger and bigger. The first time I remember being impressed with this was when I was a schoolgirl, and I heard about atoms and how they were electrons revolving about nuclei. And of course it jumped into my mind that this is like the solar system around the sun. It’s an obvious idea to everybody who learns about these whirling things.

In the book you mention the muscles, the fibers of muscles, how they are like cable wiring. There’s strands of wire that are wound around each other, and then those strands are then wound around each other so that each of the parts looks like the whole structure.

JJ: That’s Janine Benyus’ example. She used it in a talk in Toronto. She’s the author of Biomimicry. A very good book. She’s like Tom Peters. She spends most of her time going around and speaking to corporate groups and schools and other groups about these things. Her talks are wonderful.

On a very small scale, muscle fibers are twisted strands of molecules. You can’t reduce them further than that. Then the fibers comprised of these molecules are on bigger and bigger scales until they make the most powerful muscle of a heavyweight boxer.

People with computers have helped with this too, have helped make fractals vivid, because they program a pattern into a computer, and then reproduce it on different scales. They make the most wonderful patterns, so complex, and yet when you examine them, they are just the same motif again and again at different scales. It’s miraculous.

Now, why are they important apart from being a wonderful entertainment for people who like to entertain themselves with them or people who like to look at them? There are lots of patterns in nature and also in our own lives, which seem dreadfully complicated and baffling.

But once you understand that the same kind of event repeating itself on various scales can produce the most remarkable complications, then you’re in a position to identify and understand things that seemed to be beyond understanding previously.

I use this for elucidating development, a process in which something already existing, called a generality, develops a differentiation. Now it’s two things. It’s the original generality and it’s the differentiated thing. And now also in effect we’ve got two generalities; the original one and the new differentiation, which becomes a generality in its turn. And so we’ve got two things that can each differentiate, and so it goes. Well that’s the way an embryo develops. It’s also how an economy develops.

And until that process was recognized, it was almost impossible to comprehend embryonic development or economic development either. So fractals are important.

Ah! So, okay.

JJ: Is that lucid enough?

That’s very useful. It helps you find the underpinnings of a process.

JJ: Yes. Exactly.

On page 108 in your book, your characters are discussing the study of economies and you say—or one of your characters says, “All these investigations would have been more fruitful than theories about how economies should work or could work or could be manipulated to work instead of just studying how they do work. What a waste.” Are you suggesting that all the studies done on economies to date have been a waste of time?

JJ: No. But an awful lot of them have. Marxism was worse than a waste of time. It led astray. Compassionate and well-meaning people on the whole thought it would be so nice if the economy would work according to Marx’s theory. But they didn’t look to see where new things in the economy came from or just how. It was as if development somehow dropped out of the sky. And so it’s not strange that Marxist economies became stultified and backward.

Now I’ve pinned that on Marxism because its shortcomings are so obvious. There have also been economists who believed in the notion that economic life begins with agriculture, and that the most important thing in a country and its economy is to have agriculture as a base.

Well that’s not true either, but it came out of the Garden of Eden story. In general, all economic theories have been tainted with notions that aren’t true. But economists have neglected to really study how economies behave. So, yes, I think that neglect has been a waste, and I think it’s affected all economics theory.

This reminds me of a conversation I had with one of the other authors I talked with, Tom Kelley from IDEO Product Development in Palo Alto. There was a half-hour Nightline show about their company, about developing new products and the process they go through, but he said, first and foremost, the most important thing they do is observe. And in fact, I think he even said that he thought that was their big trick, because they just took the time to actually go and observe people using things, rather than having any preconceptions about how they ought to be using them, which I guess is your sense of what the study of economics has been. It’s as if someone decided this is how it ought to work, and they’ve been trying to force theory upon something without actually seeing the underlying processes?

JJ: Right. That’s what I meant about retreating into their own heads. Well you see now that’s a fractal that you just identified. This is the way they go about developing a new product. And I’m complaining that the economists didn’t go about developing economics this way.

I’m also fascinated by the last 30 pages of your book, which is the notes sections and a guide to the wide-ranging areas you went through to pull in material for the book.

JJ: Oh, I’m glad you read the notes.

I loved the notes.

JJ: I like the notes too. I had a good time writing the notes.

I see that, because these are not your run-of-the-mill notes. I think there’s a lot of information in this notes section, which I’ll be sure to point out. My last question of the day is: What’s your current project?

JJ: I’ve just been writing some short things these days. A few speeches for certain causes that are dear to me, and some introductions to books and that kind of thing. I haven’t been working on a book since I finished The Nature of Economies.

Are you thinking about a book?

JJ: You know, I’m not a great one for planning ahead. I wait for something to grab me; that always happens. And I work on what presents itself until then. Usually in every book that I’ve done there was something that I had started out with, thinking that it would be a last chapter in that book. And then I realize, “No. It needs to be a whole book.” Or I was left with some burning question I needed to look into.

I see that a lot with authors, for instance, I was speaking with Deborah Tannen who wrote You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Conversation, but that book grew out of one chapter in one of her previous books about linguistics, which explored people’s speaking habits and the difference between the sexes was just one section within that book. But then that got the most attention from people, and it just grew from there.

JJ: Yes. I was once complaining to Naomi Bliven, who wrote about books for the New Yorker, about what trouble I’d had organizing The Economy of Cities, because every time I would start on a chapter, I would find there was something else I had to explain first.

So what I thought was my beginning chapter ended up as Chapter 4 or 5, but this was not obvious, and oh, what a lot of turmoil it took to get that. And she said very cheerfully, “Oh, you’re so lucky. You had a Genie chapter.”

And I thought that was a good name for this kind of thing: you don’t know what will be released every time you pull the cork.

That’s wonderful.

JJ: I think that happens to quite a few writers, and it’s what makes writing interesting. Writing is hard work, and it would be just such a drag if it didn’t keep surprising you.

Thank you.

Books by Jane Jacobs:

The Nature of Economies
The Death and Life of Great American Cities
Cities and the Wealth of Nations: Principles of Economic Life
The Economy of Cities

The Systems of Survival