A few years before her death, in 2000, Jane Jacobs gave a really fascinating interview with Jim Kunstler. It’s a long interview, but it’s packed with interesting ideas from a woman who was still in her intellectual prime well into her 80s. I was particularly struck by this passage about the Garden City movement, which was one of the major inspirations for the baleful urban planning trends of the 20th Century:
What was a really major bad idea about the Garden City was you take a clean slate and you make a new world. That’s basically artificial. There is no new world that you make without the old world. And [urban planning intellectual Lewis] Mumford fell for that and the whole “this is the twentieth century” thing. The notion that you could discard the old world and now make a new one. This is what was so bad about Modernism.
The intellectual error that drove much of the bad urban planning decisions of the 20th century was to underestimate the value locked up in existing urban neighborhoods. People build complex networks of friends, families, and professional contacts that knit the city together and make it more than the sum of its parts. They make long-term investments in their homes and businesses on the assumption that those investments will pay off over decades. The form psychological attachments to people and places that can’t easily be replaced.
None of this value could be seen in the scale models and conceptual sketches that urban planners used to map out the future of urban neighborhoods. And so plans were made based on superficial engineering and aesthetic criteria. Tremendous damage was done by people who underestimated both the value of what they were destroying and the difficulty of building adequate “clean slate” replacements.
This is not, of course, an intellectual error that’s unique to urban planning. The same error can be seen in the Bush administration’s fantasy that we could transplant democracy to Iraq by force of arms. We quickly learned that there was no “clean slate” in Iraq; old animosities quickly re-asserted themselves, tens of thousands of people were killed, and millions had their lives turned upside down. A similar story can be told about the Vietnam War, which Jacobs strenuously opposed. (she wound up moving to Canada to ensure her sons would not be drafted)
F.A. Hayek drew an important distinction between two different strands of liberal thought, which he termed the “Continental” and “British” strains of liberalism:
The one tradition, much older than the name ‘liberalism’, traces back to classical antiquity and took its modern form during the late seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries as the political doctrines of the English Whigs. It provided the model of political institutions which most of the European nineteenth‑century liberalism followed. It was the individual liberty which a ‘government under the law’ had secured to the citizens of Great Britain which inspired the movement for liberty in the countries of the Continent in which absolutism had destroyed most of the medieval liberties which had been largely preserved in Britain. These institutions were, however, interpreted on the Continent in the light of a philosophical tradition very different from the evolutionary conceptions predominant in Britain, namely of it rationalist or constructivistic view which demanded a deliberate reconstruction of the whole of society in accordance with principles of reason. This approach derived from the new rationalist philosophy developed above all by René Descartes (but also by Thomas Hobbes in Britain) and gained its greatest influence in the eighteenth century through the philosophers of the French Enlightenment. Voltaire and J.‑J. Rousseau were the two most influential figures of the intellectual movement that culminated in the French Revolution and from which the Continental or constructivistic type of liberalism derives. The core of this movement, unlike the British tradition, was not so much a definite political doctrine as a general mental attitude, a demand for an emancipation from all prejudice and all beliefs which could not be rationally justified, and for an escape from the authority of ‘priests and kings’. Its best expression is probably B. de Spinoza’s statement that ‘he is a free man who lives according to the dictates of reason alone’.
In the 20th century, of course, this intellectual error led to the horrors of communism. The problem with trying to make society conform with reason is that society is a lot more complicated than most planners realize. So what looks on paper like a perfectly rational social order—8-lane freeways, US-imposed democracy in Iraq, the dictatorship of the proletariat—turns out to have fatal flaws when put into practice. This is why wise policymakers recognize that their knowledge is limited, and take a pragmatic, incremental approach that improves peoples’ lives without turning them upside down.