Jane Jacobs classic, Death and Life of Great American Cities, is the Bible for many urban theorists. But we hear very little of her last few books.

Jane Jacobs is remembered almost exclusively as the patron saint of vibrant walkable human scaled neighborhoods. Her 1961 classic Death and Life of Great American Cities is the Bible for many urban theorists. But we hear very little of her last few books. It’s worth reflecting on those as well since she explores the underlying dynamics that support or suppress functioning towns and cities.

Her 1992 Systems of Survival is a conversation between two hypothetical characters. The “Guardian” represents the social institutions of governance, religion, and the military, and “Commerce” represents producers, merchants, and traders. The two are opposite forces in society that perform very different functions. Both are necessary. However, each must operate within completely different codes of conduct.

The best societies are the ones where the Guardians and Commerce each contribute their skills effectively in total segregation. Guardians are exclusive, value tradition, exert force, and dole out largess. Commerce is promiscuous, embraces innovation, shuns force, and values thrift.

The worst societies are the ones where Guardians and Commerce dabble too heavily in each others’ spheres of interest. We really don’t want our judges to engage in commerce. That’s called bribery. And we don’t want our merchants to draft and enforce laws. That’s called a mafia.

Jacob’s 2000 The Nature of Economies compares human economic systems to ecological systems. In nature, there are complex self-reinforcing processes that build interlocking diversification and specialization. The resultant whole is dynamic and efficient with regulatory feedback loops. Forests and coral reefs are examples of successful ecological systems. Failure fixes itself since the decline in one organism becomes food for others. This is how a properly functioning economy works too.

Jacobs described her 2004 Dark Age Ahead as an optimistic book, in spite of its grim title. By identifying the primary factors of a declining society it’s possible to take corrective action. She sites the indicators of decline that relate directly to the concepts in her two previous books.

We need to read all of Jacobs’ books in order to put her more popular work into a larger perspective. Highly productive and resilient towns and cities are the result of a larger social context of stability and functioning institutions. Without them, no settlement can thrive properly.


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