Urban guru urges small over mega-projects

In 1961, Jane Jacobs stood much of what people thought they knew about cities on its head with the publication of her book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities."

In an era when "urban renewal" meant razing neighborhoods to build high-rises, she argued for cities on a human scale, for foot traffic, for safe streets protected not by heavy police presence but by the "eyes of the city" - neighbors keeping an eye on one another.

Since the late 1960s, she has been in Toronto. She lives and works in a neighborhood called the Annex. Her street is just the kind of street where anyone who knows her work, and knows Toronto, would imagine her living: a comfortable but unpretentious "traffic-calmed" residential street just a stone's throw from a main thoroughfare bustling with shops, restaurants, and pedestrians.

In an age of information overload and overspecialization, she is living proof of the continuing value of generalists, of synthesizers who combine insights from apparently unrelated phenomena into a useful whole. She gets much of her information from the daily newspapers and the Yellow Pages.

She has just published a new book called, "The Nature of Economies." Its central argument is that human economic development is governed by the same sort of processes as "natural" ecosystems - responsive adaptation to environment, for instance.

The following are excerpts from an interview with Jacobs:

Your economics seems to be a less "dismal science" than what some of us remember from school. Do you see yourself presenting a more upbeat or optimistic view than other analysts?

Yes. We're beginning to transcend the very idea of a law of diminishing returns, and not only because there have been so many instances in which we've been able to substitute goods when they've become scarce and expensive.

We've become aware of natural capital - the way timber grows, the way fish spawn, and so on. If you are careful about not exceeding the surplus yield, you can use natural capital pretty much indefinitely ... as if you were living on the interest, without going into the capital itself and therefore ruining the source and spoiling the ecosystem.

The other optimistic thing is that human capital is amazing in a difference it has from other natural resources: The more you use it, the more you have, because experience, cleverness, improve with use.

These ideas of natural capital and human capital, which we've only been thinking seriously about lately, have made us think about other kinds of capital that have taken a lot of time and investment to appear. They go under the names of social capital and ethical capital, and they are turning out to be important for healthy economies.

The natural processes I talk about haven't been invented by people, but they've been used by people, and misused by people, for a long time, and they're a form of natural capital.

A few years ago, if you said "capital," it would have been understood that you meant money for investments. Now, we've gotten the idea of "virtual reality," and all of a sudden capital in the sense of money for investments seems like "virtual capital."

We're seeing money as the symbolic representation of these other things.

You describe aesthetic sense as part of what makes us fundamentally human - and the role it plays in restraining human tendencies to despoil or destroy our environment. Can beauty be made affordable in terms of people's everyday experiences?

It's very, very important, but I don't think it can be done in a quick, one-stroke way.

It can be done over time. The aesthetic sense in general is far more utilitarian in our lives than we give it credit for. It is not a frill. It may be very essential to our survival in many different ways. Many, many a very utilitarian development traces back to a decoration or a toy or some enjoyment of some kind. Aesthetic sense may be awfully important in maintaining our whole ability to create. These things that we make are not satisfying to us unless they are satisfying aesthetically.

Aren't some of the restored traditional city centers we hear so much about in danger of becoming urban theme parks?

Yes, I think you're right. Furthermore, some of the biggest renovations are occasioned by the fact that the last mega-projects that were designed were so awful that they had to be removed, as is the case in Boston, with the Big Dig ... or here in Toronto, the Gardiner Expressway [an elevated expressway to be removed as part of a similarly huge redevelopment announced in recent weeks] was a very expensive mega-project of not so long ago. Or look at the famous dynamiting of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project [in St. Louis]. So many of the mega-projects being touted now are just remedies for the mega-projects of yesterday, which were disasters. You've got to watch out for great big projects.

What do you think your career as a thinker and writer outside academe suggests about the role of the generalist at this point?

Oh, I think generalists are needed, of course, and I think specialization easily goes too far. It's often thought that things have gotten so complicated that the human mind can't hold more than one specialty. Not true. Lots of specialists - people who have gone really deep into a field - often know a lot about other fields. But so many economists shudder if you start talking about the life sciences, for instance. It's not that they can't take it in, that they're not smart enough. It really means that they aren't interested. It would be helpful if they were.

What worries me is that very often academic life somehow sorts out people who want to be narrow. That's not always the case by any means. But it's too common.

The aesthetic sense in general is far more utilitarian in our lives than we give it credit for. It is not a frill. It may be very essential to our survival. [It] may be awfully important in maintaining our whole ability to create.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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