The Economy of Cities: Plainly-Delivered Verdict

And with that last post, I’ve reached the end of The Economy of Cities. It’s not Jacobs’s last word on economics – by the time you read this I’ll have started Cities and the Wealth of Nations, which she published 16 years later (1984) – but it outlined the first thoughts she had, and before I move on I want to summarize my impressions and what takeaways I found valuable.

The basic Jacobsean framework of city growth is interesting, consistent with common sense judgments about which towns and cities are energetic and which ones are depressed, and seems to have a fair amount of predictive power. It provides pretty clear prescriptions about how to best encourage growth; get out of the way of new businesses and strive to keep the government on the side of enabling change and the regulatory environment open. Regulatory capture has become even more of a concern since the first writing here, which seems to bear this out.

When she extrapolates, her thoughts get more fragmented, and hit-or-miss in value. Her theory of very early city development blatantly contradicted the best evidence at the time, and other than a speculative, headline-grabbing, and therefore probably incorrect finding of a drowned city from early on, there has been no support for her theories found since. When she extrapolated forward, her general sense of trends was not bad, but nearly all the specific examples were outright wrong, and only some of them because she missed specific technological developments that were coming.

The general trend prediction was quite good. Both her explanation of why their is higher demand for products from rural areas whenever a country grows and her suggestions about the stagnation of cities were good retrodictions. Her predictions about the trend of manufacturing toward diversified production, and the trend of control shifting from manufacturers toward service-providers were ahead of her time and spot-on. (She missed the possibility of software, but then it was 1968.)

However, her examples and trends both suffered for being parochial. This was somewhat affected by missing the rise of containerization, but even still, not grasping that cities outside the Western world could take work formerly done by the most advanced cities, rather than it moving to rural areas, was a serious error not justified by her position in time. Many other predictions she made, like the decline of New York City, show the same parochialism and political bias. This emphasized that, even a decade after she’d begun her urban development research, she still lacked skill in academic methods.

Additionally, she seemed fuzzy on some terms. City/’city region’ was used in contrasting ways in different places, and coupled with the general parochialism I have misgivings about her conceptual structure. If this fairly central term is in conflict in her own usage, what else has more subtle flaws?

Overall: The theory is good and worthy of further study, which I’m disappointed mostly hasn’t happened. It makes some neat predictions and provides a lot of food for thought, but has big shortcomings in rigor. Some directed data-gathering to test her specific assertions would go a long way toward giving me confidence that it is actually a general theory. Especially to check that it has still applied as we’ve moved to an information economy.

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