Sunday, May 15, 2011


 It is an easy claim commonly found in school books that cities evolved from agrarian communities that themselves were formed when pastoralists pursuing herds narrowed their ranges, domesticated animals and plants, and settled down.  In truth, cities evolved from the camps of successful hunter/gatherers who met to exchange their supluses.  Jane Jacobs suggested this in The Economy of Cities.  Her theory was validated by the excavations at Çatal Höyük in Turkey.   

First, Jacobs was an urbanist.  An immigrant from Scanton, Pennsylvania, to New York City and an activist in Brooklyn, she fought against the so-called "urban renewal" of the 1960s; and she was largely successfully at least in forestalling what was really urban removal.   She advocated for old mixed-use buildings in diversified neighborhoods, which was the opposite of intentions from planners such as Robert Moses who intended large new single-use structures for uniform neighborhoods. 

Also, Jacobs was self-educated.  Working as a secretary and freelance reporter, she attended on her own Columbia University's open college or extension school (now the School of General Studies).  She studied what interested her, and at one point was almost forced into a degree program which she successfully resisted.

Her other books include: 
  • The Death and Life of Great American Cities, New York: Random House, 1961.
  • Cities and the Wealth of Nations, New York: Random House, 1984.
  • Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics, New York: Random House, 1992. 
 Her theories on the transition from the Neolithic to the Bronze Age were validated after the excavations at Çatal Höyük were resumed.  She suggested that the first commonly accepted trade commodity was not wheat - and certainly not useless silver or gold - but obsidian.  Obsidian for points (arrowheads; spear tips) was broadly desirable by hunters.  However,
more subtly, this was not originally the attraction of the city.  The deposits were some miles away.  Rather, having found the deposits, the city dwellers then knew what use it would be to those who already came there.  Similarly, agriculture began in the city when excess seeds were thrown out and eventually took.  To benefit from this accident, farming was moved beyond the city walls.  Throughout history, farms have depended on cities, not the other way around.  Support for this view is suggested by the fact that in the industrial age, plows, harvesters, and tractors were made in cities and sold to farmers. 

Independent support is suggested by the known history of the Western Middle Ages.  Even in the Dark Ages, nominally "self sufficient" manors exchanged their surpluses, first at common crossroads, then eventually at the Great Fairs.  Though Rome shrank, it survived, as did its peripheral cities Cologne (Colonnia Agripinna), Vienna (Bonovindicum), Paris (Lutetia), among many others.  Throughout the Middle Ages, new cities were founded.   Moreover, even when the disasterous flooding of the 12th century created Holland's Zuiderzee, refugees swelled the population of Amsterdam, perhaps tripling it; but rather than starvation, want, and poverty, the city enjoyed prosperity and vibrant trade and commerce. 

Life is chancy.  Risk is reality.  Farms are no more inherently stable than cities.  When crops fail, farmers have fewer options.  When crops fail here, cities can buy food from there.  The historical record verifies that.  We know of local failures in 13th and 14th century England for which the same records show no appreciable increase in the price of foodstuffs. 

 Tacitus's Germania glorified the primitive.  Greek comedies such as Dyskolos (The Grouch)  held up the rube.  They seem so simple and honest compared to us.  But all progress comes from the cities, specifically because people with active minds are drawn there. The medieval manor castle had a monastery for its neighbor.  The medieval city housed a university. 

Cities fail, too.  In ancient Greece, they had a cliche: Long ago, Miletos was great.  Samarkand was sacked twice by Mongols in the 13th century.  Haarlem was destroyed by the Spanish in the 16th century and in 1631 the Count of Tilly slaughtered the inhabitants of Magdeburg.  Like those purposeful destructions, the creation of urban war zones and center city ghettoes was not the result of "spontaneous order" as millions of people independently voted with their feet.  Rather, it was the deliberate acts of those with state power. 

What is left is suburbs.  Jacobs theorized that where today we find pastoralists we are not looking at hunters on the verge of becoming farmers, but former farmers ranging about a center somewhere within which we will find the ruins of a lost city.  In some distant future, wrongheaded archaeologists coming back to Earth may suggest that cities were formed by those lawn-mowing, highway driving peripheralists who were drawn to their arbitrary center points for convenience.  But those suburbs are little cities: seeds from a source, acorns from the oaks. 

And there is "gentrification."  In The Economy of Cities, Jacobs argued against Schumpeter's idea of "creative destruction."  Instead, she showed examples of old forms of production and wealth creation acquiring new purposes and meanings.  The most vibrant cultures were those that let that happen.

1 comment:

  1. I am a fan of Jacob's vision and sense. She tutored herself and more often than not her reasoning has been validated by more careful research. We are so proud that she made her home in Canada. By her efforts to communicate values, she played a very important part in the design of our cities. Vancouver post-1974 owes almost all its urban design principles to Jacob's analysis and recommendations. The first influential writing of hers up here we on Bruckner Boulevard. She is one of the primary reasons that Vancouver has no urban freeways at all. Toronto of course knows her, but her ideas were implemented in a more piecemeal way in the early years of her influence.

    Michael, publish this with an Objectivish intro paragraph on OL and it will engender discussion.


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