Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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The Life and Death of Cities

Jane Jacobs

An elderly lady named Jan Jacobsen elderly lady named Jane Jacobs, born in Scranton and living in Toronto, developed the theory that the root of all economic expansion is the replacement of imported goods with local products. The arresting example she gives is that of Venice, which she feels was the beginning of Western European industrialization, initially as an outgrowth of the Crusaders bringing back ideas from Constantinople. It was dangerous and expensive to import things from Constantinople, so even locally-made shoddy imitations could find a profitable local market. The do-it-yourself idea spread up the Po valley, around the Alps, down the Rhine, and so on. Each area gradually developed a thriving local industry of manufactures which were protected in price by the extra costs of importing them from more traditional centers. You become prosperous by becoming self-sufficient, getting rid of imported goods, right? And cities decline when people have too much money, find local manufacture is pollution-prone and too much trouble, and go back to importing goods as members of the rentier class. But notice that current trends are all the other way. Let us have global free trade, and free the victimized consumer from the high prices which local merchants hope to extract from trade barriers. Lower prices then leave disposable income, which is available for investment, and consequently leads to a prosperous economy. Whatever the destructive local effects in cities, states, or nations, a thriving world economy makes everyone better off, not least because it puts a stop to nationalistic wars. That's the case for globalism, and Jane Jacobs makes the case against it. If you love your city, it goes hard to think globally. Cities are perhaps better seen as points of equilibrium, like coral reefs and oceanic barrier islands, places where balanced forces of creation and destruction momentarily maintain an urban concentration which will disappear when the overwhelming irresistible forces of the economy change their balances. Creating a new urban center may be a project too large for concerned citizens in a small town to be able to achieve; exploiting happenstance is what they must pray for. But if you want to maintain an existing city, keep it from decaying, you will shift your focus from subway lines and zoning laws to giving more thought to the forces which make a city viable. Like crime prevention, education, taxes, and public spirit. If Philadelphia is destined to be destroyed, let it be by creative destruction, which is irresistible, rather than abandonment, which is your own doing.

Originally published: Thursday, February 20, 2003; most-recently modified: Friday, May 31, 2019