Adrian Williams: The Economy of Cities

IC20 referred to Jane Jacobs and her book The Economy of Cities (mistakenly called “The Culture of Cities”). There appears to be no ideological analysis in the article. A suitable position for further comment in IC would be under the heading “If it ain’t bust, don’t fix it.”

The report was a summary of Jacobs’ Chapter One, about the postulated development of agriculture in cities and its subsequent export to the countryside. In Chapter Two Jacobs covers the later development of other sorts of work which have been exported to other cities in turn. In this context new work does not mean more of the same; it means new types of work: making new types of goods and services. There is more than one point of interest to an ideologist in Jacobs’ book. This article covers four separate points. The first two are her comments on Marx (p. 248) and the Chinese Great Leap Forward (p. 187).

As new work develops, older industries lose their relative importance and the people connected with them, whether owners, managers or workers, seldom like this. They have a common interest which unites them against new industries, and this unity conflicts with the economic factors identified by Marx. Jacobs says Marx identified a “secondary kind of conflict” (p. 248), whereas I would say Marx had a more abstract view than that used by the workers, economists or. Jacobs. Whatever the way of expressing a bit more support for the argument that Marx’s call for working-class unity is most unlikely to be heeded.

The Chinese example is completely different and should be read in conjunction with the discussion in IC20 of a book on recent Chinese experience (Shenfan, by W. Hinton). Political initiatives by an eidodynamic leadership did not founder solely on the obstructiveness of a protostatic population, or any intermediate groups. Part of the reason for failure was the impracticality of some initiatives as explained by Jacobs in her review of the attempt to run blast furnaces in villages. The argument is not one of economies of scale but of the interdependence of various trades. Division of labour is fine but the divided specialities have to be close enough together to call on each other conven- iently and get quick service. This happens best in cities. An example of a similar problem in India is given on p. 186. A project to make intra-uterine contraceptive devices, financed from the USA, was tried in a small town but had to be relocated in a city before it could work continuously.

The third major point is the effect of town planning in recent years. The creation of new work starting in cities goes on today. At least, it does in cities which are thriving. When it stops and a city tries to survive on the same old work then that city is starting to decline. Processes of decline have been intensified by the town planning of the last forty years, which broke up communities of people and businesses in a quest for rationalisation and a better quality of life for the inhabitants. Jacobs shows that efficiency (at least, efficiency as defined by engineers and often by planners) is antithetical to diversification and progress.

It is important that people wanting to start new activities should be able to find premises and services on hand at a price they can afford. This facility has been getting lost in the wholesale demolition of old premises and the zoning of industry with the concentration on new (expensive) standard units. There appears to be a belated recognition in Great Britain, following the USA (which Jacobs mainly writes about) that cities cannot be successfully planned in fine detail, and the same local government that destroyed so much of the old property is now having to convert remaining old buildings to collections of small workshops so that new businesses can find starting places. Thus does parastatic concentration on detail give way to the maintenance of epistatic tradition and protostatic adhockery when the economic base of a society is seen to be damaged by too much concentration on the parastatic.

All cities are “impractical” and they always have been. There has been an unbroken succession of problems, from food supply through public sanitation to congestion and pollution. Problems are there to be solved and the solutions of the past have provided the jobs and facilities of today. Jacobs identifies the problems of today which have to be solved to keep cities habitable in the future.

The fourth major point is the threat to cities posed by eidodynamic groups arguing that poor conditions in cities can be eliminated by simply controlling industrial processes. Jacobs shows that this tends to lead to decline of cities and to bigger problems. The naivety of some eidodynamic groups is shown by the slogan “Cities are for people,” as used in the 1970s. Wrong! Cities are for commerce, for buying and selling, for delivering and collecting. When these activities stop, the city dies and the people suffer. The latest example in Great Britain is the “Cities for People” campaign run by Friends of the Earth in early 1986. The campaign consisted of leaflets, posters, newspaper adverts and public meetings mainly directed against motorised transport in cities. Posters showing cars as snarling monsters had the slogan “Cities are for people, too,” and posters showing lorries as bigger snarling monsters had the slogan “Cities are for people, not juggernauts.”

Comparing these two sentences in the context of the campaign I see a grudging acceptance of private cars and a rejection of heavy commercial vehicles in cities. That is an unrealistic combination. People can move themselves around in various ways, but goods have to be carried. It would be easier to get rid of private motor cars than commercial vehicles. An outright ban on heavy goods vehicles would be an attack on the commercial activity which Jacobs shows to be essential for a city.

In these campaigns, as in other connections, the eidodynamics seek to restrain eidostatic activities. Restraint is unavoidable, and the exact amount of it something that can only be decided on the merits of the particular case; it may well be that further restraints on heavy goods traffic in cities would lead to overall improvement. Restraint, indeed, is so important that it has to be applied even to restraint itself. Few would be better off for constraints upon commercial traffic that damaged the life of cities before, in the normal course of social development, other ways of living had been evolved.

Limited restraint would keep open the prospect of combining commercial activity with provision of cleaner air and water together with improved housing, transport and entertainment for the inhabitants. (I nearly added ‘jobs’ to that list, but that would be to ignore all the articles in IC under the heading ‘The End of Work’). However chaotic and dehumanised modern cities may look they are not bust yet; they are functioning as cities have done since the city was invented.

– – –

ACADEMIA is not always dull and dusty. One school of archaeologyrecently mounted a practidal demonstration of their views on flint-knapping; their opponents accused them of “macho rocksmanship” and invented a new disease, “antieolithisme” to account for their obstinacy.

from Ideological Commentary 25, January 1987.