Previous post:

Next post:

Ada Lovelace Day – Jane Jacobs

by Mel Starrs on March 24, 2010

in Economics

I have an aversion to positive gender discrimination (see some of my my thoughts here in this early post which I can’t believe is almost 4 years ago). I’d like to think we (women) are equal. Sadly, I can still tell (recent) tales of principal female engineers being asked to go out and buy sandwiches (mistaken for administrative staff) and more worryingly interview questions which border on illegal (fishing for both existence and nonexistence of children). Sigh.

So in the spirit of Ada Lovelace Day I shall blog about my female tech hero. Ada Lovelace Day is an international day of blogging to celebrate the achievements of women in technology and science.

She was an urbanist and economist – Jane Jacobs. Named as one of the Environment Agency’s top 100 environmentalists of all time her ideas on economics and urban development have been hugely influential on my own thinking. The following interview excerpt sums things up nicely:

Reason: What do you think you’ll be remembered for most? You were the one who stood up to the federal bulldozers and the urban renewal people and said they were destroying the lifeblood of these cities. Is that what it will be?

Jacobs: No. If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century, the most important thing I’ve contributed is my discussion of what makes economic expansion happen. This is something that has puzzled people always. I think I’ve figured out what it is.

Expansion and development are two different things. Development is differentiation of what already existed. Practically every new thing that happens is a differentiation of a previous thing, from a new shoe sole to changes in legal codes. Expansion is an actual growth in size or volume of activity. That is a different thing.

I’ve gone at it two different ways. Way back when I wrote The Economy of Cities, I wrote about import replacing and how that expands, not just the economy of the place where it occurs, but economic life altogether. As a city replaces imports, it shifts its imports. It doesn’t import less. And yet it has everything it had before.

Reason: It’s not a zero-sum game. It’s a bigger, growing pie.

Jacobs: That’s the actual mechanism of it. The theory of it is what I explain in The Nature of Economies. I equate it to what happens with biomass, the sum total of all flora and fauna in an area. The energy, the material that’s involved in this, doesn’t just escape the community as an export. It continues being used in a community, just as in a rainforest the waste from certain organisms and various plants and animals gets used by other ones in the place.

— Jane Jacobs, City Views Urban studies legend Jane Jacobs on gentrification, the New Urbanism, and her legacy, Reason Magazine, June 2001, Interviewer: Bill Steigerwald

Rather than recommend Death and Life of Great American Cities (her most often cited book) I urge everyone to go out and read both of the books she mentions above (tricky to get hold off but worth tracking down). Sustainability and economics are inextricably linked and her prose is incredibly clear and succinct.

Jane Jacobs – my Ada Lovelace heroine for 2010. I hope she never had to buy the sandwiches…

  • Lorna Parsons

    Lovely post Mel.

    I was blogging from an Urban Design event a while back where Death and Life of Great American Cities was cited, in particular the similarities between what happened in Boston in the 1930’s and the changes taking place in cities around the UK today. A comment on the blog from the event read: ‘Jane Jacobs references always welcome. Everyone in this field should read “Death & Life…”‘, so it’s good to hear your recommendations for her lesser known books too.

    Happy Ada Lovelace day!

  • Lorna Parsons

    Lovely post Mel.

    I was blogging from an Urban Design event a while back where Death and Life of Great American Cities was cited, in particular the similarities between what happened in Boston in the 1930’s and the changes taking place in cities around the UK today. A comment on the blog from the event read: ‘Jane Jacobs references always welcome. Everyone in this field should read “Death & Life…”‘, so it’s good to hear your recommendations for her lesser known books too.

    Happy Ada Lovelace day!

  • Pingback: From the Archives: Jane Jacobs and ‘Fact City’ | Jane's Walk Phoenix()

  • Pingback: Watching: Robert Moses Meets His Match | Jane's Walk Phoenix()

  • Pingback: Songs and Cities | Jane's Walk Phoenix()

  • Pingback: Obituary: Erik Wensberg, editor/writer, key Jacobs ally, 79 | Jane's Walk Phoenix()