Customer Reviews: The Economy of Cities
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on March 11, 2000
The title of this book is slightly misleading, because the thesis of the book is that cities play an essential role in the process of economic development. Although its anecdotal style gives this book a disarmingly unsystematic appearance, this is a profound book. It is easily one of the most important books written during the 20th century. Economic development is something about which conventional marginal utility economics has very little to say. The Economy of Cities, therefore, fills a kind of void. It stands to conventional economics in much the same position as quantum physics stands to classical physics.
A simply wonderful book.
Lancelot Fletcher
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VINE VOICEon July 4, 2006
This book is almost as good as Jacobs' must-read classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. Whereas Death and Life deals more with how to foster vitality in individual city neighborhoods, this work deals with the broad importance of thriving urban areas. Here Jacobs gives the reader an understanding of how economically healthy and diverse urban areas are essential to creating healthy economies in general - and more than that, to ultimately creating a healthy global economy. Her ideas fly in the face of much conventional wisdom. But I think she proves the essence of her case with pages of compelling, reasoned argument.

Most reformers, many of whom start out with earnest good intentions, end up wreaking havoc and plunging their countries into tyranny because they attack their countries' economic problems from the wrong end. Most reformers in recent history, from Pancho Villa, through Stalin and Mao, down to current day missionaries - set out to "help" struggling economies by first digging into the dirt of the poorest rural areas. They assume that change must start in the agricultural sector. So they reapportion land; they attempt to introduce modern technology to subsistence farmers; they establish schools, clinics, and communal wells in the rural areas. But often, these efforts come to naught. Indeed they frequently backfire and leave area residents worse off than before.

A typical scenario of the type Jacobs cites - a volunteer worker sets up a well in a parched rural area of some Third World country. But soon after the volunteer leaves, a valve in the well breaks. And there is no way for local residents to get a replacement valve. There is no nearby urban industry to supply valves or any other replacement parts for anything. So the well stagnates, becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and a hazard.

Jacobs illustrates why these good will projects so often fail. There is no surrounding urban industry to back them up, to supply all the quirky, often small but oh-so-necessary parts to rural endeavor. Urban areas are also necessary as markets for rural produce. Without recourse to diverse urban economies, virtually all rural areas will fail to thrive in the long run, no matter how much charitable reform is pumped into them.

Jacobs goes further. She illustrates how the very idea of agriculture, as well as most advances in agricultural technique likely STARTED in denser urban areas. This is the most controversial, frequently contested idea in her book. Most people are geared to dismiss urban areas as being devoid of "nature. But the reverse is actually true. There is often more flora, more planting activity, more wildlife and domestic animal husbandry, more agricultural cross-fertilization of all kinds going on in cities than in rural areas. But because the city is by definition "urban," people don't see it and continue to feel they must escape to rural areas in order to experience nature.

However, even if you are of this frame of mind, and if you therefore trip on Jacobs' early contentions about the primacy of cities - I urge you to keep reading. You may not end up being completely convinced, but you will come away with a new tool kit of ideas that you can apply in a myriad of ways as a citizen of the world.

Any politician who will have to make decisions touching on the national or global economy should definitely read this book. Everyone from well-intentioned celebrity reformers down to individuals who simply send a few dollars a month to Guatemalan waifs should read this book, and learn how they might redirect some of their future contributions into more sustainable projects. Every voter should read this book. It's a well-written, interesting book that gives insights into how an economy can develop and diversify into vitality. It suggests definite solutions. In short, it's a book for everyone.
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on October 26, 2005
This book has some great insights but is getting a bit outdated. I thought the section on the origin of agriculture was fascinating stuff, but I'd like to know how Ms. Jacobs' theories square with recent research.

The comparison of Manchester and Birmingham was great. I think Ms. Jacobs is basically correct with her analysis of what it takes to make a vibrant, prosperous city. Her basic recommendations for city layout--small, short blocks, high concentrations of people walking, a mix of buildings of various types and ages--are very good. She is right on point with her criticism of urban renewal programs and freeways.

Ms. Jacobs' analysis of how business development occurs is fun to read and very relevant to today. She makes it very clear that rural towns that try to develop by attracting a local assembly plant or the like for a large company are barking up the wrong tree.

The book has some problems. Ms. Jacobs dismisses problems with resource depletion far too easily as the product of a stagnant economy. She also dismisses population growth, seeing it as a symptom of a growing economy, not a problem. There is of course some truth to this, but in my opinion migration is perfectly adequate to take care of local labor shortages. The side effects of nationwide and worldwide population growth are too severe to be treated lightly as Ms. Jacobs does.
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on March 2, 2004
This book, written in the 1960's, couldn't be more relevant today, in our age of outsourcing and loss of jobs. In Jacob's thesis, cities must constantly evolve, developing new products, or they will stagnate and decline, as their old exports wither. She makes a good case that efficiency, as reflected in the large scale, focused enterprise, can often be the enemy of innovation. This kind of logic has been incorporated into mainstream thought, in that many large corporations try to foster growth by establishing small entrepreneurial units. Jacobs provides a historical basis for this paradigm, as well as the detailed economics which shows it is not simply a matter of encouraging people to be entrepreneurial. Even more interesting to me, was Jacob's well supported argument that the earliest cities preceded and fostered the development of agriculture, not the other way around. I have read Robin Wright's Non-zero, The Logic of Human Destiny and Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs and Steel, both great books, yet Jacob's thesis was still new to me. The Economy of Cities has a certain amount of unnecessary repetition, but not as much as Jacob's The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I would also highly recommend despite that problem. Also, and this is not a major point, Jacobs recognizes that exports may contain inputs which have to be imported, but does not seem to see that import substitution may also rely on increasing the import of certain inputs - thereby overemphasizing the importance of import substitution relative to development of new exports (although if we could find a substitute for oil......). Despite having a mathematics and economics background, I did not find Jacob's D,N,A equation particularly enlightening, and advise the reader not to get hung up on it. Jacob's use of history as a series of case studies, and her ability to extract the proper lessons even when they defy conventional thinking, is far more important than any mathematical tools.
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on March 3, 2000
This volume is a perfect sequel to Jacobs' first and most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. While that volume explores the characteristics of vital urban areas, The Economy of Cities describes the economic mechanisms that fuel urban prosperity. It is a shame, though, that so few policy leaders heed Jacobs' analysis. If they did, society would have fewer half-witted economic development scemes like athletic stadiums and more intitatives that foster human innovation.
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on August 24, 2005
Jacobs starts with the claim that there would be no agriculture if there were no cities, confronting the general "agriculture first then cities" approach. She then explains how new work is added to the economy. She states that division of labour is needed for economic efficiency, but does not promote further economic activity. Thus, efficiency of operation is in conflict with development of new work. Jacobs suggests that cities grow by gradual diversification of its economy, starting from its initial exports. Local economy grows as the exports grow, and many imports are replaced by local products. More goods, raw materials and services become available to the producers. Although this is a very comprehensible book, it includes a degree of redundancy. Must be in a planner's library, and should be read.
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on November 6, 2001
City Planning, a dismal field dominated by craven kleptocrats, shifty real estate developers, sleazy lawyers and lazy desk jokey bureaucrats, gets a much needed upgrade here.
From the outset, Jane Jacobs makes it clear that this is an attack on City Planning as it's done by most city governments. It's almost Jeffersonian in its recommednations: teh cities that are the most livable are those which are the least planned by top-heavy, over-manageed bureaucracies.
Like all whose insigts are brilliant, Jacobs' observations and recommendations are deliberately distorted or totally ignored by those who are actively involved in "city planning" in nearly every American City.
THE ECONOMY OF CITIES and Jane Jacobs' writings generally, serve to illustrate the major problems for those with brilliant insights, sagacious advice, and great wisdom: the people who should be the prime audience are not interested.
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on June 28, 2010
Jane Jacobs wrote on American Cities in 1962 and 1969. This book was written when she was aged about 68 and I think therefore must count as her economics chef d'oeuvre.

Subtitled 'Principles of Economic Life', 'Cities and the Wealth of Nations' tries to reorientate the whole 'science' of economics.

In effect, she asks - what is the simplest atom of economic productivity? A farm or fishable sea, perhaps? Or a factory? A mine, or oil well maybe? Her answer is no - it's a city. In contrast with many people who view cities as dirty or dangerous, she is an optimist about them. In fact she thinks all economic progress is based on cities. The reasons aren't spelt out, but by implication, I think she claims [1] there are people in cities with multifarious skills, and their synergy gets things done; [2] people can also produce novelties, and these are essential; [3] cities also have multitudes of objects which can be bought without too much effort - Jacobs many times gives convincing lists of things which cities can provide, but which backward areas [her phrase] couldn't supply. Think of a taxi in the Sahara - no fuel, no parts, no water...

In summary, most products need a more or less complicated mixture of raw materials, processing, tools, skill, and transport; as it happens, only cities can do this. And only cities with a creative approach will not stagnate.

Her books started with observations on American cities - New York, Boston, Pittsburgh... Then she broadened into Rome, Tokyo, Paris, St Petersburg, Manchester. There are many piquant examples - including settlements which became neglected and emptied - in this book, taken from rural France, Japan, Venice, Rome, Glasgow - and many more.

Another important view she has is that agriculture was invented in cities (or at least towns). When I first read this, I thought it was absurd: one thinks of rural areas with villages growing wheat or rice, with some domestic animals; and then towns slowly growing out of them. Jacobs says tractors, ploughs, hoes, winnowing equipment, everything, was a town product. I don't know if she would have pushed this view right back to prehistory, but it certainly makes sense. (She describes Catal Huyuk in what's now Turkey in one of her first books. And claims that the mutant form of wheat with multiple ears on the stalk may have been identified by a farmer - not accidentally spread).

With these approaches, she identifies five aspects of cities which are 'import-replacing' (i.e. create their own net wealth): markets, jobs, transplants, technology, capital. She makes a convincing case why countries all have one capital - Holland, France, Britain, Sweden.

She also looks at pathologies of these - there's interesting material on cities as subsidising poor areas, which sounds convincing; on VAT as a damaging force on small industries, as tax is extracted at each stage of production - advantaging huge businesses where VAT is only charged at the end; on weaponry as ultimately damaging and military bases as unhelpful; and on national currencies as not providing valuable feedback - she seems inclined towards local currencies, though she isn't very clear on this: she has a biological analogy of several people all forced to breathe at the same rate by some centralised system, irrespective of what they're doing. She also has material on groups forces to subsidies others; Vietnamese under the French being one example - but readers of this may empathise also with taxpayers in the west subsidising immigrants. Another pathology is clearances - the Scottish Highlands were one example, but much the same happened in parts of the USA. Another pathology is abandoned places, and abandoned centres of empires - Portugal, Turkey. Yet another pathology is capital in the money sense used thoughtlessly: the Shah of Iran, the Tennessee Valley Authority, Tsar Peter the Great, and dams built around the world are some of her illustrations.

There isn't room here to outline everything in the book; however it's well worth five stars. I don't know if anyone took up and developed her work; my guess is that academic economists would simply be too financially in a rut and intellectually timid to risk it, though I would guess some of her ideas were/are used without acknowledgement.
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on February 23, 2015
An interesting pro-urban thought experiment. Obviously you should read this after the Death and Life of Great American Cities. As fields of study go, too often urbanism is the first to fall victim to quantification to the detriment of theory. Without theory though, what we are left with are unspoken ideologies that bias our perspectives before we even begin to take measure. Jacobs was a rare voice that spoke positively of urbanism, and sought to analyze the city itself as a whole object, rather than just its component parts.
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on November 14, 2012
From the cover, I expected this to be a dry read, but it wasn't.
One of the most pervasive ideas I found in it was the idea that having a close-knit community, good lighting, and good urban planning can prevent unnecessary evils like crime in our neighborhood. It really made me think about my own community and what I can do to be a better neighbor, lookout person, and friend of the community. I think everyone can learn something from this book. Unexpectedly excellent!
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