The well-known American architect Daniel Burnham once urged his fellow architects, “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Big ideas attract big money and big power, argued Burnham. They hold sway over the imaginations of future generations, even when the idea is not realized within the lifetime of its originator. Burnham practiced what he preached, too, making a name for himself as the lead architect of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and later the author of the 1909 Plan for Chicago, both of which exemplified the big City Beautiful ideas of the time that sought to rebuild the messy, mixed-up city along monumental lines.
But Burnham was neither the first nor the last to champion Big Plans for remaking the city. In his Plan for Chicago, Burnham expresses admiration for Baron Haussmann, who in the mid-1800s replaced the medieval street network of Paris with the city’s distinctive long, straight boulevards (never mind the forced displacement or public debt involved). Meanwhile, many of Burnham’s contemporaries considered such big messy cities as Chicago unsalvageable and brought their Big Plans to the countryside instead. Ebenezer Howard and his followers believed that newly built Garden Cities could alleviate the crowding, poverty, crime, and disease of cities by syphoning their population off into comprehensively planned, low-density communities. Perhaps no utopian took Burnham’s doctrine of Big Plans as far as Le Corbusier, the Modernist architect whose unbuilt 1925 plan for Paris imagined a Haussmannization of sorts for the 20th century, wiping away a few square miles of the central city and replacing it with 18 identical cross-shaped skyscrapers surrounded by parkland and crisscrossed by freeways. Under the title of the “Radiant City,” Le Corbusier elaborated and promoted the principles that guided his Paris plan around the world through the International Congresses of Modern Architecture.
While none of these schemes were built exactly to plan after that of Haussmann—who had the will of an Emperor behind him—their spirit continued to animate orthodox city planning in America from the late 19th century onward. By 1961, with the advent of the New Frontier, the cult of Big Planning had not only grown, but American technology, bureaucracy, and political will had finally caught up with the dreams of Burnham, Howard, and Le Corbusier. In the early 1900s, the Federal government had extended the police power of local governments to planning and zoning their land for specific uses, and in 1926 the Supreme Court upheld their right to do so. The creation of the Federal Housing Administration in 1934 and the home-ownership program of the postwar GI Bill induced the mass construction of new suburban communities, radically transforming American transportation and land-use patterns. Concurrently, cities around the country began to raze and rebuild their most run-down and troubled districts, and this only accelerated after the Housing Acts of 1949 and 1954, which incentivized private developers to get in on the action. Finally, the Highway Act of 1956 provided funds for interstate highway construction, not only across the land but through the downtowns and neighborhoods of many American cities. Perhaps nowhere embraced the combined power of this “urban renewal” regime more enthusiastically than New York City, where power broker Robert Moses funneled Federal funds into razing great swaths of the urban fabric for new highways, parks, public housing, and private developments.
It was also in 1961 that Jane Jacobs thought otherwise.
Jane Jacobs grew up alongside all of these changes to the American urban landscape. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in 1916, she moved to New York City at the height of the Great Depression to “find her fortune.” There she worked as a secretary in factories, a writer for a metallurgy trade journal, a propagandist for the U.S. government during and after World War II, and as a freelance writer for all sorts of magazines and newspapers, before finally taking a position as editor of schools and hospitals for Architectural Forum, one of the best-known architecture magazines of the day. There she was given an assignment that would set her on the path to upending much of American city planning and becoming one of the most influential urban thinkers of the 20th century.
When the urban renewal regime hit its stride in the mid-1950s, Jacobs was tasked with covering its implementation in cities around the country. Though initially optimistic about these Big Plans, the more she saw, the more doubts she harbored. These new districts put the assumptions of “Radiant Garden City Beautiful” planning to the test, and Jacobs found the results lacking. In particular, they failed to create a functional public realm—the most important organ of the city—and thus failed to make people’s lives safer, more convenient, more social, and full of opportunity. Worse, their construction required dispossessing hundreds of thousands of people of their property and tenancy, their communities, and their livelihoods. In short, Jacobs found that the hubris of urban renewers had led them to trust their own utopian orthodoxy more than the centuries of wisdom embodied in the real, existing city in front of them, run-down though it may be.
In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, Jacobs brought together her observations of the failures of urban renewal along with the criticisms of many others into what she describes in its opening lines as “an attack on current city planning and rebuilding.” Taking down the Big Plans of Burnham, Howard, Le Corbusier, and their ilk in the very first chapter, she went on to reveal how they ignored the most important role a city must play: as a platform for the countless little plans of countless people. “Classified telephone directories tell us the greatest single fact about cities,” she explains, “the immense numbers of parts that make up a city, and the immense diversity of those parts.” The very density, the street life, the mixtures of uses, and states of repair that urban renewers sought to eliminate from cities, in fact, are part of what enables ordinary people to fill the pages of the phone book with their many plans. Those basic ingredients provide a medium for city dwellers to pursue their ambitions and to live their everyday lives.
How does this density and diversity enable urban life? Consider the neighborhood bodega in a big city. Its lifeblood is the constant flow of foot traffic generated by the surrounding urban fabric—the many overlapping entrances and exits of the “ballet of the sidewalk,” as Jacobs famously described it. Large concentrations of both residential and working uses, connected by a walkable network of streets, draw people out at different times of the day, allowing the shop to open earlier and stay open later, thus reaping more profit and providing more convenience to customers. In other words, just like a bee pollinates flowers as it collects food for its young, the many customers that shop at the bodega unknowingly collaborate to create more choice, convenience and opportunity in the urban environment, simply by living their daily lives. Meanwhile, this virtuous cycle between pedestrian and shopkeeper also adds more watchful sets of “eyes on the street” to keep it safe from crimes of opportunity, and builds up a loose network of casual relationships between neighbors, a fund of “social capital” to be used in times of need.
As Jacobs argues in the concluding chapter of Death and Life, such thickets of complex relationships between diverse actors and actions are the modus operandi of cities. Cities are “problems of organized complexity,” where the success of every park, every street corner, every business is determined by multiple interrelated processes, and any intervention requires feeling out a tangled web of causes and effects. No single mind—no matter how educated or naturally talented—can grasp, control, or manufacture all of the details and relationships of a city. As Jacobs put it in a 1981 speech, “Genuine, rich diversity of the built environment is always the product of many, many different minds, and at its richest is also the product of different periods of time with their different aims and fashions.” Almost by definition, Big Plans leave no room for the open-ended, multifaceted evolution that makes a city a city.
Death and Life marked a turning point in the history of urban renewal, and, along with many scandals, protests, and a turn toward fiscal conservatism in the decades following its publication, Jacobs helped topple the prevailing Radiant Garden City Beautiful paradigm of city building. But she did not stop there. In six more major books, as well as a lifetime of speeches, articles, and essays recently collected in Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, she extended her ideas on the self-organization of cities to the realms of economics, ethics, and the rise and fall of civilizations.
While she was writing Death and Life, Jacobs came to a couple of conclusions that would lead her to write her next book, The Economy of Cities. The first was that a city cannot survive on good urbanism alone. As she would later tell an interviewer, “It doesn’t matter what else cities have, what grand temples they have, what beautiful scenery, wonderful people, anything else—if their economy doesn’t work.” The second realization was that the impetus behind the efforts of the Big Planners was in some ways an economic one: to rein in the unruly, explosive growth of cities that almost always accompanies a developing, expanding economy. Urban growth overwhelms infrastructure, crowds out established people and uses, obliterates old customs and institutions, and tramples over nearby agricultural land—all issues that city planning sought to address. “City growth patterns, in sum, are messy and leave messes in their wake,” Jacobs wrote near the end of her life. “They insult trust in order and offend authority of all kinds; perhaps that is their most unpardonable perversity.” In other words, beneath many of the issues of physical form that Jacobs took up in Death and Life, mysteries of economics remained unresolved.
As Jacobs pursued these loose ends, she began to believe that the birthrate of new local enterprises—new items in the phonebook—lay at the heart of economic life in cities. The large companies of her day began small, and if they did not themselves begin in the local economy, then they depended directly upon it for ideas, skills, and suppliers. Likewise, the big cities of her day began small, and when they grew, they did so through the proliferation of little plans, not the growth of a single big plan. Most cities start with a handful of major exports as their economic base, Jacobs observed, but as they grow, their internal economy serving local consumers and producers becomes larger and more diverse than their export economies. Furthermore, the cities with the most durable economies do not survive only by retaining their initial export businesses, but rather by cultivating the replacement of exporting companies as they inevitably fold or leave with new locally grown exports. Thus, Jacobs concluded, local entrepreneurship and the conditions that enable those many little plans to take root are of the essence.
So she read business history after business history until she literally became so bored of the repeating storylines that she could identify many of the recurring economic ingredients that successful companies require to thrive. Some of these ideas have become commonplace today, like the importance of spinoffs and venture capital. Likewise, it has now become nearly a truism that the fund of “human capital” in a city—the skills, talents, and education of individuals—plays a vital role in its economy. As Jacobs put it, “The greater the sheer numbers and varieties of divisions of labor already achieved in an economy, the greater the economy’s inherent capacity for adding still more kinds of goods and services.”
Yet Jacobs also found that economists, economic development agencies, and government programs of the time had a dismal track record when it came to identifying and nurturing these conditions. In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, she notes that the vast majority of funds spent on ostensible economic development are in fact “transactions of decline” that have historically led nations into ruin. She argues that the millions of dollars spent on luring factories and corporate headquarters, subsidies and infrastructure schemes for rural areas, unremitting war work, and foreign aid are all primarily political means of holding together a decaying empire—not genuine productive investments that lead to long-term, sustainable growth.
Meanwhile, how are such schemes funded? Tax revenue diverted away from the nation’s most productive cities, money which could keep the entrepreneurial engines of the national economy revving. Without continuous reinvestment in little plans, Jacobs argued, urban economies gradually decline, or when natural or economic disaster strikes, they have difficulty recovering. No additional cities spring into life in the places that most sorely need them, either, not without thriving older sibling cities to use as springboards. And eventually, even the milch cows themselves run dry, and the many transactions of decline along with them.
Today, this situation has not much improved. On the surface, places like Silicon Valley seem to exemplify Jacobs’s emphasis on entrepreneurship, but the digital economy of the Bay Area is actually closer to middle-aged than we like to admit. As Jacobs argues, the genuine innovations of tomorrow are more likely to come out of some obscure corner of a local urban economy than from the economic giants of today. Meanwhile, the emphasis on this entrepreneurial approach to economic development has been mostly confined by industry, geography, and demography. Too many people, places, and sectors have been left out. At the very moment that popular culture has begun to fetishize entrepreneurship, America is at a 30-year low in new business starts. As recently as 2015 nearly two-thirds of U.S. metro areas lost more firms than they created. Meanwhile, the majority of economic development agencies are stuck in the same old paradigm Jacobs describes (best exemplified by the obscene contest for Amazon’s HQ2) in which cities compete to lure mature corporations to relocate with tax incentives. This paradigm continues despite its proven ineffectiveness and its bloated price tag: more than $65 billion in public funds from 2000 to 2015.
There are a few glimmers of hope here and there, like the refocus of some rural states on diversifying their economies, emerging philosophies like “economic gardening,” and efforts to extend the tech industry beyond the usual (coastal) suspects through programs like Rise of the Rest, but in general I suspect Jacobs would be appalled by how slowly we have responded to this wasteful state of affairs, and by our continued failure to effectively support the entrepreneurial life of cities.
For Jacobs’s insights and passionate defense of the bottom-up nature of cities and economies, libertarians have often celebrated her as a kind of “anti-planner” who tore down the failed attempts of government to plan on behalf of the people, and who argued for the infallible, spontaneous order of markets and cities. Some have therefore compared her to Hayek, but that’s not quite right. It would be truer to say that Jacobs was a champion of little plans rather than of no plans at all. There is no doubt that Jacobs argued for the justice and wisdom of enabling individuals, communities, and businesses to make their own plans. But Jacobs also reserved an active yet subtle role for governments in preserving and cultivating an environment where these little plans can come to fruition, and even in making their own “collections of little plans.”
In the realm of city building, Jacobs once gave the example of Toronto’s St. Lawrence neighborhood, which was built from the ground-up in the 1970s to the 1990s. Although the effort was led by city planners, they had no final product in mind. Instead, they let the neighborhood make itself up as it went along within a loose framework of streets, density limits, and public amenities. When it came to uses and design, much was left up to the individual developers of each parcel, leading to a surprisingly urban end result.
When it came to the economic roles of government, Jacobs put forth a similar approach of limited but active interventions. First and foremost, Jacobs emphasized the importance of the widely accepted role of government in detecting, punishing and preventing crimes that affect small businesses. While violent crime per 100,000 people has plummeted by half since the 1990s, one only need observe how we handled the 2008 housing crash to know how serious we are about punishing white collar crimes. To Jacobs’s point, some analysts have suggested that one underappreciated impact of the crash has been to suppress entrepreneurship, as would-be entrepreneurs lost the equity held in their now foreclosed homes.
Secondly, and perhaps more controversially, Jacobs believed that big business could be as corrosive to the long-term health of the economy as big government, and she suggested that government must act as a “third force” protecting the still incipient interests of young firms from established ones. Echoing a recent op-ed in the Washington Post by American Conservative executive director John A. Burtka, Jacobs argued that the monocultures of big business undermine our local communities and economies (including the next generation of big business, she might have added). The efficient, self-contained conditions that large corporations need to survive are opposed in most ways to those that new businesses need. Breakaway employees, independent suppliers, small-scale investment, even a fine-grain built environment rarely serve the needs of corporations. However, whereas established interests have the political and economic power to shape environments to their ends, emerging interests generally do not. Unless, that is, government makes a point of listening to what bubbles up from below.
One important tool Jacobs underlined for protecting the interests of young firms is Federal antitrust law. For example, in The Question of Separatism, she recounts the well-known antitrust case against Standard Oil, wherein the Supreme Court dissolved the monopoly into more than 30 different companies in 1911. She observes that this action did not kill the oil industry. On the contrary, many of the new companies grew to become larger than Standard Oil itself, including Exxon, Mobil, and Standard Oil of California. Likewise, the breakup of the Bell Telephone System and the American electric utilities quickly paved the way for new innovations and small suppliers around the country. Jacobs held government monopolies to the same standard as well, advocating for the privatization—though also the effective regulation—of public utilities, transportation, waste disposal, and mail. Thus, Jacobs ironically found these limits on big business to be crucial to building a business-friendly climate in the long term.
Finally, Jacobs believed that regulation needed to evolve. Like many conservatives, she saw how onerous regulation could be, especially to small businesses without the knowledge or resources to navigate the red tape maze properly. But she also believed regulation was sometimes necessary. As Jacobs once told an interviewer at The New Colonist, “I never said that government was messing around too much in our lives. I said it was doing stupid things. That’s not the same thing at all. It may be doing too little in our lives and still be doing stupid things.” The point for Jacobs was to recognize where the market excels, where it fails, and where it does outright harm. For that reason, she was a particular advocated of open-ended performance standards, like fuel economy standards, which gave government a way to challenge established players to do better, while taking advantage of the diversity, competition, and creativity of the market.
Likewise, Jacobs advocated for reconsidering regulations more frequently. Governments at all levels excel at adding legislation but generally fail to remove outdated legislation. For example, up until last year New York City had a Prohibition era “cabaret law” on the books that forbade dancing, eating, and drinking in the same establishment without a license. Needless to say, its original intent had long been resolved, and its enforcement had become arbitrary. City Councillor Rafael Espinal, a Democrat, led the successful fight to have the regulation removed and since then has helped institute an Office of Nightlife to support the city’s nightlife businesses, while reducing noise complaints and crime. Jacobs argued that we need more such responsive, pragmatic politicians to review the original intent of our laws, to listen carefully to how they affect businesses and individuals, and to respond quickly and appropriately.
While cities and economies have a life of their own, Jacobs argued that we cannot take that life for granted. It is not automatic. It requires continual observation, cultivation and pruning, and government has a role to play in keeping these systems open to new growth and new directions, not stuck in the Big Plans of yesterday.
If we believe Jacobs that the greatest good in city building and economic development is to create an environment where little plans can thrive, it cuts through many of our tired political formulations. No single bogeyman, whether big business or big government, billionaires or unions, can take full blame for our nation’s everyday injustices, failures, and follies. In fact, all too often their interests intertwine in maintaining the dysfunctional status quo. Instead, Jacobs observed, the devil is in the details. It all depends on how the complex interactions of competition and regulation, real estate development, and city planning add up to an environment that serves or squelches the many little plans of many people.
Daniel Burnham was right that Big Plans capture the imaginations of people with money and power. But Big Plans are all too often squelchers, not servants, of little plans, whether they come from the public sector or the private sector. So if we want to revive the dynamism of our national economy, to diversify our local economies, or to kickstart the ballet of the sidewalk just outside our doors, perhaps we should recall Jane Jacobs’s rebuttal instead: “Make no plan bigger than it must be.”