[In this space I’ll be posting quotes, ideas, and excerpts relating to a book I’m writing (thus far untitled), which I might describe as “What I have learned from the economic and social theory of Jane Jacobs.” My hope is to get thoughtful, informed feedback that will be useful in shaping the book.]
Architects and planners refer to something called the “built environment” by which they usually mean things such as city streets and pathways and the grids made up by them, buildings of various kinds, plazas, the infrastructure of water and energy inflow and outflow, parks and recreation areas, unbuilt open spaces. Although parts of each of these urban elements were consciously constructed, usually by a team of individuals, the way that they fit together, except in the case of mega- and giga-projects, are not the result of a deliberate plan. Buildings in a particular location, for example, – offices, schools, residences, retail, malls, entertainment, places of worship, research facilities – are of different vintages, constructed by different people for different purposes at different times with different techniques, historical contexts, and sensibilities. But the way they all more-or-less complement one another, their “fit,” is an emergent, unplanned phenomenon.
I will refer to these elements collectively as the “built framework,” where the word “built” should not in all cases imply deliberate design.
What goes on within the built framework can also be planned or unplanned
There are, of course, the activities for which a particular element is intended (most recently, that is, because spaces can have multiple uses over time). A gas station, what we might call a “specialized space,” is primarily for pumping gas, not for seeing a football game, which you do at a stadium. But there are other activities that take place in or are facilitated by a given element, especially those that are “general spaces” such as sidewalks, that are not only unplanned but have significant regional consequences over time. They meet, plan, perform, work, play, and so forth on sidewalks and plazas in ways that no one could have foreseen.
However, even within a more specialized space, such as a corporate office, value-creating-but-unplanned discoveries (innovations or “intrapreneurship”) can take place. And certain specialized spaces, such as coffee houses or bookstores or concerts, are well-known for the serendipitous encounters and subsequent connections they enable.
|Private Space||Public Space|
|Planned Order||LIVING ROOM||STREET PARADE|
|Unplanned Order||FAMILIAL RELATIONS||MARKETS & CITIES|
Local economies are the context in which market processes largely take place. Cyber-commerce would seem to be an exception to this, but….
Our first step is to examine the microfoundations of cities. We examine, that is, how cities work from the point of view of individual actors at street-level.
The city is a relevant unit of economic analysis
Once we’ve grasped the nature and significance of cities and their local networks and processes that hold them together and keep them dynamically stable over time, we can examine the impact that the use of political means has on them.
The underlying assumption of Jacobs’s economic framework is that, like individual action, firms, and households in standard economics, the city (as she defines it) is a natural unit of economic analysis. That is, like individual action or a business or household, cities emerge spontaneously wherever economic development takes place, without the necessity of an exogenous act of creation, such as a city charter. And like a business firm, which standard economics has long regarded as a useful unit of analysis, cities need not always exist where there are people. Current estimates of the age of Homo sapiens range in the neighborhood of 300,000 to 350,000, but it’s only in the last 10,000 years that large settlements or proto-cities took root and human civilization began. (We examine some of this history in Chapter 2.) Today it is widely accepted that cities are a main driver of economic development and cultural innovation, a theme that we will explore in Chapter 5.
In contrast, nation-states are largely artificial creations with borders that are rigidly maintained except under exceptional circumstances. “The nation-state, which seems so powerful and fundamental today, is a late and transitory successor to the enduring city” (Vance 1990: 23). Cities tend to endure far longer than the states that encompass them. Cities are the locus of peaceful social change, cultural creativity, and economic revolution. States are the locus of social stasis, cultural reaction, and economic protectionism but the venue for war and violent political revolution. Note that I am not saying that nations-states as such cannot be units of analysis for economic theory and policy or for disciplines outside of economics. But they are essentially units of political analysis or political economy, not of purely economic analysis. Economists study them because (1) political boundaries create constraints on economic processes that have interesting consequences (e.g., international trade, exchange-rate movements) and (2) those with political interests (e.g., public choosers) want to know the national implications of various economic events or public policies. But cities that have spontaneously emerged over time are different. Like pure markets, a city is a “natural” unit of analysis. Indeed, I will argue that it may be useful to see the study of markets as essentially the study of cities.
For instance, most of the concepts of (micro)economics pertain primarily to large settlements and cities. Take the following for example:
- competitive markets & impersonal exchange
- price system
- entrepreneurship & innovation
- extensive division of labor & division of knowledge
- weak ties & social capital
- externalities & public goods
- regional comparative advantage and efficiency
I hope the chapters that follow will clarify the close connection between these concepts cities. Like politics, economics is local.
What I hope you will take away from this book
To look and think about cities in a new way. To appreciate the nature and significance of cities in economic development and social and cultural change. To better see the limits of deliberate design, both private and governmental.
Again, the overall goal of my book is two-fold: 1) to educate a general audience about the nature and significance of the market process and how that relates to urban processes and 2) to inform professionals interested in market-process economics (and more specifically Austrian economics) and in urbanism (more specifically admirers of Jane Jacobs) how each can learn about economic and urban institutions and processes from the perspective of the other. I am aiming this book primarily at urbanists and afficianados of Jane Jacobs and secondarily at devotees of Austrian economics. My hope is that in doing so I can reach a wider, mainstream audience – there being far more admirers of Jacobs – while also enriching the analysis of Austrian economics.
Jane Jacobs didn’t call herself an Austrian economist, but she was one; she didn’t call herself a libertarian, and she wasn’t. She is I believe an excellent example of a liberal (in the American sense) whose policy prescriptions were however constrained by her grasp of economics. Her ideas complement an Austrian economist’s understanding of social processes but also can help the layman appreciate that “ought” presupposes “can.”
 I developed this argument in Ikeda (2007). https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11138-007-0024-2