Jane Jacobs, Inspiration, and the Internet

Last night at 3am, our daughter Brieza started crying, Frannie and I woke up, and I couldn’t get back to sleep.  So I crawled over into my office and started surfing the web.  For about two hours, I wandered from thing to thing, and seemed to keep hitting gems, like this classic Paul Graham article on doing what you love, this awesome Quora thread on how Apple keeps secrets, these posts by Joe Kraus on “seeing greatness” and the culture of distraction we’re creating (most of these stemmed from McKenna Moreau’s twitter stream).  And of course I logged my requisite Wikipedia time, reading up on Freidrich Hayek as well as the history of Fascism.  A grand tour, indeed.

One post that really got me thinking was a Quora thread started by Christina Cacioppo asking “Why does Jane Jacobs garner so much respect?

It got me thinking about why Jane Jacobs is inspiring to me.  I read Jane Jacobs for the first time during my sophomore year of college at Stanford.  At the time, I was feeling rather displaced and isolated, having moved to the northern California suburbs (as beautiful as it is there, in many ways) from NYC.  I couldn’t figure out how to engage with the physical and social landscape of the spread out strip mall suburbs of the Valley — I couldn’t see or feel the energy, I couldn’t connect with people (physically, emotionally) the way I had grown accustomed to in New York.  The whole thing felt really weird and I didn’t like it.

Then, on a total whim (tagging along with my friend Carrie McAndrews), I took a class called “Introduction to Urban Design” (taught by the epic Gerry Gast), and Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities was our first reading.  I read the first few chapters, and that was it. I finally had a framework for understanding my feelings for the places I lived in, and without knowing it, I set off on a course of interest that would shape everything I’ve done since.

Without getting into all the detail, the big takeaway was this: there is great power in the infrastructure we build, and the way we build it — and quite often, when we “go big”, making sweeping, top-down plans, we miss the mark, we forget the humanity.  Jacobs reminded us that cities are made of people, and people have peculiar ways of working, which are often counter-intuitive.  If we want to make great cities, we need to start with a people-eye view of the world, and work up from there.  Not a bird’s eye view.  Bottom-up, open, and organic, focusing on identifying and strengthening connections.

Jacobs was not a city planner.  She was a writer and an activist.  This first book, published in 1961, was enormously powerful — it sent shock waves through the city planning community and influenced generations (and counting) of planners.  Beyond the book, she was famous for standing up to the forces of Big Planning (Robert Moses), and organizing opposition to projects like the Lower Manhattan Expressway, which would have put an interstate through Manhattan’s Greenwich Village (an idea that seems patently ridiculous now, but was close to being real in the 60’s).  She embodied an outsider’s voice of reason, and she marshaled tremendous popular support.

Fast-forward 15 years (if you’re counting from my college days, 50 from the publication), and here we are with the Internet.  We have a complex, vibrant medium that’s connecting people in incredible (and sometimes scary) new ways.  It was built with an open architecture, upon principles of decentralization, trust, and permissionless innovation.  It’s chaotic and messy, and totally awesome.  Just like cities.  And we have big, powerful forces working hard to lock it down and control it.

I believe in the diverse, open awesomeness of cities, and in the diverse, open awesomeness of the web.  Jane Jacobs isn’t my only inspiration (there’s also Steven Johnson, Joi Ito, Fred Wilson, Barbara Van Schewick, Larry Lessig, Jonathan Zittrain, Yochai Benkler, and many many many others), but she’s a big part of the foundation.

Speaking of foundation, I’m kind of a sentimental guy, and keep a lot of meaning in my stuff.  Here’s a picture of my desk, specifically the stack of books holding up my monitor:

Those three books are there for a reason:

  • PHP for the World Wide Web, by Larry Ullman.  This is the book that taught me programming.  I had taken some in college, but not really focused on it.  But this book helped me catch the bug — I did all the exercises, then moved on to more and more.  It kicked me into a (now 8-year old) cycle of self-directed learning about technology, programming, and the web.  The best education in my life, by far.  So thanks, Larry.
  • Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson.  Steven is my favorite writer of all time.  He has an unmatched ability, IMO, to tie together phenomena from the worlds of biology, sociology and technology into an amazingly rich, compelling and long-lasting narrative.  The title of this blog, “the slow hunch”, is drawn from this book (check out the video), and I always feel like he’s inside my head with me as I go about my work.
  • and of course, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Jane Jacobs.  This is the actual copy I bought back in 1998, and I’m enormously proud to say that it’s signed by Jane herself (I met her briefly in 2004, shortly before she passed away).

It’s corny, but I like the idea that these people, stories, and values are propping up my work every day.  Standing on the shoulders of giants, so they say.

So, when I think about the Internet, and the fight for the future of everything, I often think “What would Jane do?” (or maybe, WWJJD).  And I think the answer is that she would dig into the nuances of How Things Really Work, make a crystal clear, compelling case for what’s great, and organize her fellow citizens to fight against the powerful forces that would change things for the worse.  Sounds about right to me.

9 comments on “Jane Jacobs, Inspiration, and the Internet”

Hello Nick,

Thank you very, very much for the kind words on my book. I’m glad it was useful to you and it’s so nice of you to say so. I’m quite flattered by the compliment.
It’s cliché, but I think most writers write because they have to, because that’s what they’re driven to do. It’s not about money or ego or anything else like that; It’s about wanting to share knowledge, to communicate, to move the human experience forward one paragraph at a time.
I wanted to be a writer long before I ever knew what that really meant. In high school, I started reading and loving the work of Franz Kafka. At the time, in my teenage naiveté and dreams of glory, I thought what a writer like Kafka had done for me was amazing: over decades and across cultures, this man was able to have an impact on me just through his words. I wasn’t even alive at the same time as Kafka, and I would never meet him, and yet: his work made a true difference in my life. I could think of no bigger aspiration for myself.
Years later, as I became a technical writer and not the Great American Novelist I once imagined, I accepted that I would never be able to have that same kind of impact on strangers through computer books. And that’s fine.
But thanks to your mention in this well-written post, and other messages I’ve been fortunate to receive lately, I see that I was wrong. It is possible to have an impact on people’s lives through technical writing. It’s a wonderful and overwhelming thing to discover. This is a good day to be a writer.
Clearly, with your intellect and enthusiasm, you would have been fine had you not read that book, but, again, I’m so glad that my book was useful and meaningful to you.
Best wishes and thanks again, Larry
PS Okay, so this comment is a bit more flowery and dramatic than most (or what I would normally write), but your post and the place of honor my book has on your desk has really made my day, if not my month.

Larry, thank you for stopping by and I’m honored to have you here. I really do think about your book quite a lot, and think of it as a big part of the foundation of my career. And, as a reminder that it’s possible to learn and build yourself up outside of the context of traditional schooling, which is a really empowering thought.

I would imagine you would think about the book a lot: it’s right underneath your monitor!

But, yes, totally agree about learning and excelling outside of, or regardless of, traditional schooling. My degree is in English, with a minor in Philosophy and Religion plus two years of Latin. The only formal computer class I ever took was on Pascal in high school, before the “World Wide Web” was created.

Computers and programming languages are great tools, but sometimes a non-IT background or knowledgebase provides the best solution to a problem.

This is a really lovely post, Nick. Though I’m sorry to hear about its circumstances (who likes insomnia?) I’m (selfishly!) very glad you took the time to write it. It’s definitely encouraging me to look at Jane Jacobs in another light.

What a great, romantic post :) I have kept my copy of “How Computers Work” from 1994 to remind me how I got hooked on all this. And that’s the beauty of the physical book, isn’t it? We can’t leaf fondly through our e-books or use them as monitor stands ;) (Oh, and, Jane Jacobs is a hero.)

I don’t think it’s corny at all… I think we are better off by always taking a hard look at how our behaviors, actions, jobs, and ultimately, lives, extend from our values. Too often, there is a cleft between our perception of ourselves and the values we hold to be true. Thank you for the inspiration!

My friend recently recommended me this book. As I was reading, I was thinking how her expectation for a good city life would change when Internet appears. So I googled “Jane Jacobs Internet”, and it brings me here. I am actually going to Chicago this Fall, so I figured that reading this book wouldn’t hurt. To be honest, i didn’t start reading this book because I would like to make a change on urban planning. I just want some introduction on what city life actually looks like (since I’ve never lived in any great cities), and perhaps It could help me choose a neighborhood that I am happy with. As I was reading, though, this book reminds me that, oh, maybe there are some better ways to live in general. Also, I feel like this book (sorta) slaps China’s recent city developments right in the face. Under drastic changes, I think China’s cities are indeed transforming from ‘togetherness’ to ‘Sharing nothing’, from one end of spectrum to the other. But anyway, it is an interesting book and I will surely keep reading it.

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