Mary Rowe on cities, nature, and chaotic systems

I think this is the most beloved chapter for any of us who were ever considered a ‘problem child’. I am afraid I can just imagine some well meaning teacher approaching my parents,  “Well, this is the kind of child your daughter is ….”

Miss Mischievous by Johan Larsson

I don’t think Jane Jacobs saw cities as a problem at all (just as most parents don’t see their children to be). They have problems, but they are not problems themselves.

Rough City and Smooth Gherkin by Ian Mansfield

But, just as there are always some well intentioned teachers or child-minders who feel compelled to suggest corrective actions to make children more conforming, in Jacobs’ time, as now, there are critics of city life, just dying to ‘clean them up’, fix this, beautify that. Urban scolds. We all know them.

There is an earthiness to Jane Jacobs: she appreciated things just as they were, observed clearly, and generally without judgment saw ways in which cities were being inhibited from sorting themselves out in creative, generative ways. She loved these ‘problems’, knowing that vibrant cities find creative ways to address their challenges.

So I think Jacobs titled this chapter ironically, suggesting well if we have to insist on referring to cities as problems, then at least let’s define what kind of ‘problem’ they are.

Image by Flickr user Danny McL

This chapter is so important to the Jacobs’ oeuvre because it signals a pursuit she initiated then and continued for five more decades: what is now referred to as complexity science, chaos theory, complex adaptive systems, Jacobs is largely credited with being one of the early advocates of understanding how systems actually work when there are a number of interacting factors. Her analysis dismissed simplistic causation: a with b makes c.

Fifty years hence there is now an extensive literature detailing cities in this sophisticated way, as there are books about understanding organizations, human behavior, natural systems, climate changes, financial markets, plant colonies. They all form an ecology, a system, of finely connected parts.

Photo by Ton Rulkens

Jacobs addresses in this chapter the misanthropic tendency to sentimentalize nature and demonize human settlements (they’re such ‘problems’). Suburban development was a way to get closer to ‘nature’ and away from the nasty density (misanthropy again) of the city: but in fact what it did was consume nature. Jacobs understood cities to be of nature, perfectly natural: that humans and nature were of a piece, not ‘at odds’ or ‘at war’, but inextricably linked.

Jacobs’ promulgation of a holistic view of interconnectedness is so profound: it moves me to this day.

Photo by zen Sutherland

But not in a sentimental way, because Jacobs was a matter-of-fact, intellectually rigorous, infinitely curious, non-ideological critic of modern life. She was no hallmark card, pushing the Gaia hypothesis. She called it as she saw it: a genius of common sense, as so rightly proposed by Glenna Lang in her wonderful book about Jacobs bearing that title. Wrangling natural systems doesn’t work. (Come to New Orleans, where I had the privilege of living for some time post-Katrina, and see for yourself. If you can’t actually go there, watch this video which poses the prophetic question New Orleans shares with so many cities around the world: how to design with nature.)

Another key point in this chapter is Jacobs’ observation that cities possess the capacity to address their own challenges:

“ Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties” (p 447)

CCE urbanist and artist Nathan Storring in an earlier post on this site said if he were teaching Death and Life he’d assign the Introduction to the 1992 reissue, and this last chapter. I share his enthusiasm because these as he suggest bookend the Jacobsean approach.

As I mentioned in my first post, the Centre for City Ecology (who initiated this book club along with Creative Urban Projects) took its name from Jacob’s notion of a city as an ecology. Jacobs’ subsequent writing continues this observational thread: economies self-organize, city economies evolve by interacting with each other, exports are generated and imports are replaced, societies are structured with two values systems of ‘survival’, relational feedback loops help economies — and cultures even — grow, self-fuel and course correct. And when those intricately balanced systems of interaction are blocked, feedback loops obscured or inhibited, then a society may face a dark age, indeed.

Jane Jacobs Way by Tim Alamenciak

This is a shameless plug for continued reading of the other books Jane Jacobs penned, following the success of The Death and Life of Great American Cities. They build on these concepts, delve more deeply into the intricacies of city economies and the value systems that underpin them, and introduce a richly and rigorously drawn case for what we now call sustainability. I tease my American friends and colleagues, some of whom seem to think Jacobs stopped writing after 1961 (or, when she arrived to Canada). Her first book is a classic, but there is a fight to be had on which of her volumes is the most important. Some say The Economy of Cities, others Cities and the Wealth of Nations, and still others The Nature of Economies. One of my colleagues here at MAS told me hers was Dark Age Ahead, hands down.

My personal favourite is Systems of Survival: A Dialogue on the Moral Foundations of Commerce and Politics. Although written in the dialogue format, which some readers find irksome, this is a demanding, profound book that raises for me so many important questions about the values that underpin the different functions necessary to contemporary life.

Jacobs herself suggested that in some ways she thought she had spent her career rewriting the same book. You be the judge. The advantage to continuing your reading is you will see the Jacobsean continuity of reasoning and approach. And you can see the fruits of her labors, of following the three habits of thought she advocates for here in the final chapter of The Death and Life of Great America Cities (p 440):

  1. Think about processes.
  2. Work inductively, reasoning from the particular to the general.
  3. Look for the ‘unaverage’ clues.

Habits to live by.

Some more resources on Jacobs’ identification of cities as problems of ‘organized complexity’:

Portland-based planner and thoughtful Jacobsean critic Michael Mehaffy wrote a pithy perfect post on Planetizen last year:

For people with math and science curiosity read these:

And as an illustration of the currency of Jacobs’ thinking on this, and its far reaching implications, read this recently published article, Cities as Emergent Systems: Race as a Rule in Organized
 Complexity, co-written by urban ecologist Charlie Lord (who founded the Urban Ecology Center in Boston) in the Environmental Law journal.

A final note

Just a final note to thank CCE for this remarkable effort! The curation of these posts, and the elegance with which they were laid out is the brilliance of Heather Ann Kaldeway! Steven Dale of Creative Urban Projects provided the early encouragement of this initiative and has invested enormous amounts of time posting his own thoughts and experience here as a Jacobsean practitioner. CCE Director Gillian Mason has added her sage experience as a town planner (often in exile) and global organizer to her posts here and to the thought leadership CCE provides. And to all the book club contributors, amongst whom I am privileged to be!

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Our friend Glenna Lang (not Glenna Carr) whose book Genius of Common Sense warmly invites us to rethink our knowledge, our own expertise about places that matter to us and the ways we engage with them.

    Perhaps she would join some of us in suggesting that people, not cities have the, “innate abilities for understanding, contriving and inventing what is required to combat [our] difficulties.” The evolutionary impulse of individuals to repair and transform their places, rather than an idealized and sentimental notion of the city as expert suggests that we honor one another’s genius and common sense.

    As I observe the way cities are transformed it is through brave, bold, creative and responsive people who truly love their places. Common sense and genius, a delicious pairing especially when love is the main course. Food for thought.

    1. Mary W. Rowe says:

      Thanks Stephen for your tasty insight 🙂 ! People and cities: fractals forever! We’ll correct Glenna’s surname- thanks for catching that. There is a Glenna Carr in Ontario…but she didn’t write Glenna Lang’s wonderful book.

      1. I’ve updated Glenna’s last name. Thanks for pointing out the error, Stephen!

      2. Fractals indeed! I think Jacobs would probably argue that the definition of a city essentially is the complex interactions of individual people. Maybe the common sense genius of people and cities is one and the same. A quote I used in my own post says it best, I think:

        Truly, cities are “a manifestation of the freedom of countless numbers of people to make and carry out countless plans.”

  2. Thanks for the mention, Mary! Hopefully one day soon I will have the opportunity to execute that lesson plan.

    1. Mary W. Rowe says:

      I am confident you will 🙂

  3. Don Alexander says:

    Thanks Mary. I remember how excited Jane was about discovering “linkages”.

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