May 5, 2006  ·  Tim Wu

Jane Jacobs, the great theorist of all things urban, died recently. It had been my dream to go find her in Toronto but that will never happen. She’s obviously influential to urban planners, but I’ve found her writing tremendously helpful for thinking also about network design.

If you aren’t familiar with her work, Jacobs was an enemy of bad central planning. She believed in cities that grew up in a willy-nilly, unpredictable way, allowing new buildings to gradually replace old, or be converted to new purposes. She believed the causes of urban blight were dullness, and hated housing projects, mega-blocks and other doomed efforts to make people live just so.

What Jacobs favored is letting neighborhoods be. She thought city planners ought create small roads and small blocks that worked on a human scale, and then stand back let the inhabitants decide how best to use their neighborhoods. Here thinking wasn’t quite economics or sociology, liberal or conservative, but rather a powerful attack on our constant tendancy to overestimate our own abilities to plan how people should live their lives.

The comparisons to network design should be obvious. Network designers, like say the writers of ATM, who have too specific an idea of what they want their users to do create abominable networks that imprison their users and become obsolute quickly. The more general purpose and useful the network, the more it does for society and individuals, and the better it evolves from one use to another.

Consider the comparison: a SoHo building can begin life as a factory, become an artist’s loft, then a boutique, then a condo, and so on. Some of the networks and even applications have led constantly evolving lives. The internet supported usenet, gopher, veronica, the web, ICQ, IM and so on, in a steady kind of evolution that was unpredictable in advance. The WWW itself has shuffled through static sites, through “home pages” of the Geocities era, through the rise of the search engine, through the blog, and through 2.0-style sites. Someone, maybe Danah Boyd, should write “The Death and Life of Great American Applications.”

Jacobs understood that the point of urban planning was not planning for a moment, but trying to cultivate healthy, evolving cities that make people happy to live in. Much of the same can be said about information architectures – the best planned networks don’t overplan, but somehow manage to create a kind of life of their own.

You can learn this in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, or any of Jacobs’ other books.

  • Atul Chitnis

    uh, it’s “danah boyd” (all lower case), not “Dana Boyd”. The lower case is important. :)


  • Graydon

    Stafford Beer, particularly Platform for Change and Decision and Control, is an interesting complement to Jane Jacobs; he’s coming from a different place (operations research) with different concerns (how do you make a good decision? what is a good decision?) and gets to very similar places about what social institutions people need to have good lives. (Ones that evolve and change and respond to actual needs.)

    Cities and the Wealth of Nations and Platform for Change make a really splendid reading pair, should one happen to feel like a round of unpredictable brain expansion.

  • rodander

    To Graydon’s post, I’d add The Road to Serfdom by Hayek. The “planning” of an economy necessarily involves value judgments, which necessarily results in dictatorship.

  • adamsj

    That’s two necessarilies too far for me. We now have a planned economy–it’s just planned on the basis of what people think they can sell, rather than on what they think people ought to have. It works very well, too, at least for the planners and in the short term.

  • http://b Paul M

    I can understand the thoughtful comparison between information architectures and urban evolution, but as long as humans can see the color of others skin and hate, then the nice boutique thing doesn’t really do it for me. my college course staught me people immigrate to the cities, get abused by other ethnic groups, eventually move away from the city and then abuse the newcomers. Unless you are black, and then you never even get to move out. Factories are mostly unsafe hellholes, artists lofts are more like homeless people who like to draw lofts, and boutiques are located in the suburbs, where people who can afford suv’s travel to. Us humans should be ashamed we can even create an information architecture when there are so many social ills around. Its really not going to matter in about 7 months when the nukes start flying anyways. Now theres some great technology.

  • http://htttp:// Mary Anne Davis

    I posted Susan Witt’s very personal obit of Jacobs here
    Susan is the executive director of the Schumacher Society in Massachusttes, a long time friend and colleague of Jacobs. Jacobs’s death brings her that much more into focus at a time when visionaries are more needed than ever. And yes, networks is what it is all about… Thank you for posting about her here at LL’s blog-

  • jane jacobs fan

    Great tribute!! Jane Jacobs is getting more and more attention in the press as auto use declines, for example: