COSMOS + TAXIS Issue on Jane Jacobs

by Sandy Ikeda

Jane Jacobs’ writings span several disciplines—including ethics and most especially economics—but she is best known for her contributions to and her critique of urban planning, design, and policy. Many of those whom she influenced in academia, policy, and activism took the occasion of her one-hundredth birthday in 2016 to celebrate those contributions through lectures, biographies, and various events and publications.

The current issue of COSMOS + TAXIS is offered in that same spirit. I am especially pleased that it includes the contributions of a diversity of scholars—with backgrounds in economics, urban policy, urban planning, geography, architectural history, and engineering—with a diversity of insights expressed from the perspectives of epistemology, intellectual history, spatial analysis, urban history, private cities, mercantilism, and of course spontaneous order; and ranging in approach from the theoretical to the historical to the applied. Indeed, we learn from Jacobs that from the diversity of the living city springs experiment, creativity, and surprise; and that pertains equally to the realm of living ideas. Read these pages and be surprised!

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The mirage of the efficient city

by Sandy Ikeda

I’m honored to be contributing a short essay to a Festschrift for Jane Jacobs.  Recently, the editor asked me to write an abstract.  The following is the result, which I would like to share with you:

A city is not a man-made thing.  Rather, it emerges from the actions of its inhabitants, who interact in unpredictable yet orderly ways.  Under the right conditions – the right “rules of the game” – what arises is vital, creative, radically unpredictable, and profitable:  the living city. Continue reading

Infrastructure: How the seen crowds out the unseen

by Sandy Ikeda

So far I’ve come across no discussion of the consequences that the massive infrastructure spending touted in Stimulus Package I (there will of course be others) will have on what Nathan Glazer called “the fine structure of society” in the local communities it will impact.

A new freeway, for example, might make it possible to get from point A to point B faster, but it can also reduce the local economies of A and B, as well as those in between, to barren border vacuums. Note that this is apart from whether they will be built in a timely manner or if the measured economic benefits they generate somehow cover their construction costs.

Because nearly all of the debate has taken place within a macroeconomic framework, most public intellectuals seem to have neglected how such a massive and rapid increase in physical-infrastructure might undermine this fine structure. Some have mentioned the “bridge to nowhere” syndrome or questioned whether the stimulus spending will actually stimulate quickly enough. And a few, like my colleague Mario Rizzo, have brought up the important resource-allocation effects. But I’m talking about something different here. Continue reading

Poverty has no causes

by Sandy Ikeda

There are a couple of discussions of poverty going on right now, here and on the “Austrianecon” list-serve, which gives me a convenient opening for the following.

I’ve been re-reading Jane Jacobs’s second book, The Economy of Cities (1969), while working on a short piece for a Festschrift in her honor.  FYI I’m writing about the virtue of inefficient cities, paying close attention to the chapter 3, “The valuable inefficiencies and impracticalities of cities.”  Although less known and influential than her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), EC is devoted to developing her economic ideas and is full of great insights, such as the following from that chapter:

To seek ‘causes’ of poverty…is an intellectual dead end because poverty has no causes.  Only prosperity has causes.  Analogically, heat is a result of active processes; it has causes.  But cold is not the result of any process; it is only the absence of heat.  Just so, the great cold of poverty and economic stagnation is merely the absence of economic development.  It can be overcome only if the relevant economic processes are in motion.

What Jacobs has in mind here is the underlying condition of poverty, not temporary impoverishment that’s due to episodes of unemployment, which may indeed be traced to particular causes. Continue reading

Ken-Ichi Sasaki on “Urban Tactility”

by Sandy Ikeda

One of the most striking things about the Tokyo skyline, at least for me, is how striking it isn’t. Viewed from afar — e.g., from its very-expensive-to-use elevated expressways (Narita Airport is too far from the city center to afford a decent panorama from the air) — the city, with few exceptions (such as Tokyo Tower), looks boxy and visually uninteresting.

This may be partly because much of Tokyo’s skyline was rebuilt after a terrible earthquake in 1923 and bombing in World War II. Yet the skylines of San Francisco (after the 1905 earthquake) and London (also the target of bombing during the war) are more interesting today than Tokyo’s.

The contrast between street-level and bird’s-eye views, on which Jane Jacobs based her opposition to modernist urban planning, is true to some extent of nearly all great cities, but in Tokyo’s case it’s especially stark. When I visualize New York or London, for example, in addition to the busy street life I also imagine their iconic landmarks, like the Wall Street and Midtown skylines or the Tower Bridge and Parliament. When I try to visualize Tokyo, only the street life comes to mind. Its almost insane busyness squeezed among impossibly compact city blocks can cause sensory overload. Continue reading

On corners: My father and Jane Jacobs

by Sandy Ikeda

Also in “The City” section of Sunday’s The New York Times is a fun article about city corners called “Cornerville” that details the intensity of life at a particular spot of urban convergence, the intersection of 23rd Street and 7th Avenue, near the famed Chelsea Hotel.  (Curiously, the article seems to just stop without really ending.)

Anyway, my late father often told me, when I was very young and more interested in real estate values than in studying cities, that it’s best to invest early in corner properties, whether in the city or country.  He prospered by following this strategy, but he didn’t explain why it worked.  Jane Jacobs does, sort of. Continue reading