Skip to main content

Jane Jacobs is pictured in this 2004 file photo. The famous writer, who would have been 100 this year, shied away from partisan commitment and took pleasure in frustrating all ideologues equally.Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Everyone has their own Jane Jacobs. The famous writer would have been 100 this year, and people around the world have been remembering the way her steely intelligence transformed their lives. The book that made her name, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, published in 1961, remains one of the 20th century's most beloved and influential takes on urban life, a book that many credit with forever altering how they see the city. Then, for four decades after that, in five more books and a host of essays and speeches, many of which we have collected in our new book Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs, she upended our understanding of not just cities, but economies, ethics and politics. In scrambling expectations, she became one of those rare public intellectuals who finds readers and acolytes everywhere, capturing imaginations at both ends of the political spectrum, inspiring community organizers and libertarians alike.

On both the left and right, Ms. Jacobs is often wheeled out to support predigested political positions. But those who remember her as an American Vietnam War protester who escaped to Canada, for instance, or as a long-time ally of Toronto's progressive Reform City Council in the 1970s to the 2000s, may be surprised by her advocacy for privatization or recent acclaim for her as a "free-market fundamentalist in city building." On the page, too, two tendencies compete. Depending on your political persuasion, Death and Life can be read as either an insurgent dismantling of mainstream assumptions similar to other touchstones of the 1960s such as The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan or Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, or alternatively as a dry run for the libertarian attacks on heavy-handed government planning, subsidy and regulation that would come into vogue in later decades.

Both of these threads run through Death and Life and her later work, but hewing too closely to either version of Ms. Jacobs tends to cloud our understanding of her work. Ms. Jacobs herself shied away from partisan commitment of all stripes, and she took pleasure in frustrating all ideologues in equal measure. One of the great lessons of her life's work is that the combined power of close observation and reasoning from the bottom up can help us put good ideas from both ends of the conventional political spectrum to work in everyday life. By following this inductive method, Ms. Jacobs gave us a novel political philosophy that combines a progressive vision of grassroots democracy with a belief in the liberating potential of broadly shared economic development.

At the heart of this common ground between right and left is Ms. Jacobs's advocacy for the right of individuals and communities to pursue their own "vital little plans." If this pleases advocates of community-based planning, this is also where libertarians have found the most purchase, admiring the acid bath she prepared for the monotony, stultification and inflexibility of "big plans." American federal programs such as urban renewal, the War on Poverty, the Model Cities program, foreign aid, the military-industrial complex, as well as Canada's handling of natural resources – such big plans, she argued, squash the many nonconforming people and plans that provide cities and societies with choice, creativity, opportunity and, ultimately, durability.

Favouring little plans, the libertarians say, led Ms. Jacobs to also favour the market over government. And it is true that by the time she wrote Systems of Survival in 1992, she had come to believe that government's tendency toward bigness and control originated in a moral system that, although it had guided rulers for all of human history, was opposed to the morals of the market. The "guardian moral syndrome," as she calls it, prizes virtues such as honour, tradition, hierarchy, exclusiveness and loyalty. Guardians, she says, can use tools such as largesse, ostentation and even force and deception to achieve their task, but they must "shun trading" at all costs, for this is the root of corruption and failure in guardian work. Instead, Ms. Jacobs argues, trade is the domain of the "commercial moral syndrome" that guides business and science. She believed that unpredictable and entrepreneurial economic life is guided by a contrary morality that values honesty, competition, efficiency, novelty, dissent and collaboration between strangers.

On these grounds, beginning in the 1980s, Ms. Jacobs argued for the privatization of public utilities – including Ontario Hydro – as a founding director of the Energy Probe Research Foundation. Because they combined the commercial and guardian moralities, she saw such monopolistic businesses as "monstrous moral hybrids," destined for corruption and waste. In 1994, Ms. Jacobs even founded her own branch of Energy Probe called the Consumer Policy Institute with the particular mission to privatize government services in energy, mail and transportation. At the time, such policies were associated with a new brand of right-leaning political economy – the "neoliberalism" inspired by the twin characters of Ronald Reagan in America and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. In 1980s Ontario, however, calls for reform of Ontario Hydro came first from an alliance of Liberal and NDP politicians, who gladly used evidence from Energy Probe to skewer the scandal-ridden Crown corporation and the ruling Progressive Conservatives. Nonetheless, Energy Probe's specific proposal for the privatization of energy production only became a reality under Progressive Conservative Premier Mike Harris's "Common Sense Revolution." Their plan was formally adopted wholesale, more or less, as the Energy Competition Act in 1998.

By that time, however, Ms. Jacobs had departed from the board of Energy Probe, in part because she felt it had swung too far to the political right. Indeed, she felt uneasy in any narrowly partisan milieu, and her support of privatization had some significant nuances and caveats. For one, unlike market fundamentalists, she did not see privatization as synonymous with deregulation. On the contrary, Ms. Jacobs believed that one of the chief advantages of privatizing such utilities was that the fox was no longer guarding the henhouse.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for libertarian fans of Ms. Jacobs is that she argued for government to intervene directly in the market. Near the end of her second book, The Economy of Cities, she describes the fundamental economic conflict in our society as the struggle between people whose interests lie in the economic status quo and those whose interests lie with emerging economic activities. Unlike proponents of "disruptive innovation," however, Ms. Jacobs did not believe that the newcomers had a natural advantage. On the contrary: "In this conflict, other things being equal," she says, "the well-established activities and those whose interests are attached to them, must win. They are, by definition, the stronger."

She envisioned government intervening in the market on behalf of those weaker, newer interests. For Ms. Jacobs, young enterprises are not the limited caste of "innovators" that we so fetishize today, but also include the countless ordinary people undertaking local, small-scale, mundane entrepreneurship. Unlike the "startup" – supported by venture capital, incubators and accelerators, courted by municipal and civic leaders, and often enough, founded or acquired by established economic interests themselves – ordinary innovators have only the power of their own ingenuity and are always at risk of being the perennial losers in Ms. Jacobs's equation. "The only possible way to keep open the economic opportunities for new activities," she concludes, "is for a 'third force' to protect their weak and still incipient interests. Only governments can play this economic role."

What might this role look like? Ms. Jacobs rarely presumed to impose any singular policy prescriptions. But whatever this "third force" might do, one can be sure that God – or the devil – would be in the details. As she bluntly told an interviewer in 2002, "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. It's not an ideological thing."

For Ms. Jacobs, the market is neither inherently evil, nor infallible. More than simply a means to exploit the weakest among us for profit, the self-organizing order of economies can be an indispensable source of problem-solving and conveniences, of opportunity and choice, of exchange and self-making in concert with others. Yet there are things that we cannot and should not expect the market to do. It does not provide its benefits automatically or for everyone. To keep Ms. Jacobs's vision alive, we need guardians with the courage to stoke the market where it is weakest and rein it in where it is strongest, to make it work for ordinary people with little capital and power and to fulfill services that commercial morality can't grasp, such as regulation, education, justice, health care and cultural stewardship, without allowing these duties to succumb to the logic and pressures of the market.

Most of all, to achieve healthy and just cities, we need responsive guardians that make room for citizen action and propel everyday innovation. As Ms. Jacobs concluded in a 1970 speech on the changing economy of Canada, "Ingenuity, cropping up from the city population itself, is the great natural resource of a city … A true urban renewal is one that liberates a people's ingenuity, lets them try new things for solving their own problems."

Nathan Storring and Samuel Zipp are the editors of Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs (Random House Canada), available in bookstores across Canada Oct. 11.

Interact with The Globe