January 9, 2011

Dark Age Ahead

This book by Jane Jacobs was published in 2004 when she was 87, just two years before she died. I'd read one other book by her years ago - The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which I had hugely enjoyed and which had really influenced my thinking about cities. Jacobs, who lived in Toronto for the last 38 years of her life, is called an urban theorist, but this book proves that she's much more. In it she ranges all over the history of man, all over the world, to try to show how and why civilizations sometimes fail. Her purpose is to prevent ours (in the U.S. and Canada) from doing so.

One of the first points she makes pokes a bubble in my favourite optimistic theory - that, yes, in the big social or economic picture things might get bad, but eventually people will figure out what went wrong, make changes and then the situation will correct itself. Not so, says Jacobs. She illustrates extensively from history how some great civilizations (and small pockets of civilizations, too, like a housing development) fail and never revive. Natural corrections to restore equilibrium don't always happen, and what's even more scary, she shows that important consequences don't necessarily have important causes or widely known motives. I thought of the U.S. war in Iraq. Little changes can drip along and cause permanent loss.

Jacobs identifies five trends that, if left unchecked, she thinks could plunge the U.S. and Canada into a Dark Age. I won't list them all, but one of them she calls 'credentialling versus education.' She feels universities aren't doing a good job of educating creative thinkers, but are rather granting conventional degrees as credentials for doing certain jobs. She shows how in an agrarian society, education is not intended to promote creativity but rather depends on students learning the way of society by rote to promote stability and extend the status quo. But a post-agrarian society (ours) depends on innovation in a wide variety of new techologies to sustain an economy once based on agriculture. She thinks our schools aren't rising to the task, and neither are governments. In her endnotes she quotes some hilarious statistics from the Canadian parliament of 2001-02 during which foot-and-mouth disease (of which there wasn't a single case in Canada) was mentioned 172 times compared to homelessness, which was mentioned 19 times. Similarly, grain transportation was mentioned more than twice as many times as the automotive, science, technology, high-tech and biotech industries combined. Her point is that governments are stuck in an agrarian mindset without nearly enough regard for the needs of a highly urbanized population and a highly diversified economy.

Which always brings her back to the discussion of cities. She talks about the "universally horrifying" mismatch between average housing costs and average incomes all over the U.S. and Canada and about how suburbs lack community and thus may fall into their own Dark Age. I thought of the first time Marj (who lived in a village all her life) came to our new place in the suburbs and after walking along deserted streets, asked, bewildered, "Where are all the people?"

I was fascinated again by Jacobs' descriptions of vibrant city cores and how city planners miss people's actual transportation needs, for example planning fixed rail routes and highways to connect major destinations, whereas people actually have mostly what she calls micro-destinations - particular offices and shops that are not on any fixed rail routes.

I love her theory about the densification of suburbs. We moved out of one suburb because we thought it was becoming too densified. She says this can be valid because not all densification is positive, but in the long run of course she supports lots of people living together near shops and services. She says it's not so much zoning and land use that needs to be regulated as behaviours. A pub in the neighbourhood isn't a problem as long as hundreds of people don't pour out of it regularly in the wee hours making a lot of noise and vomiting in your shrubbery. A small business is good but the owner has to figure out a way to operate it so that the traffic or smells or whatever other "behaviours" the business might generate are contained in a way that's acceptable to neighbours.

This book really challenged me and I highly recommend it. In the first half I felt she was stabbing in a lot of different directions (interesting ones, to be sure) but not really bringing her points home. But things started to get clearer - maybe I was just getting it - and the miscellaneous threads came together powerfully for me in the end.


  1. Reading your last paragraph makes me wonder if I actually finished it, because I was left with the impression that it was pretty scattered and never really resolved the main points. Perhaps I need to read the ending!

    Not sure if you ever read James Howard Kunstler's Geography of Nowhere, or the follow-up Home from Nowhere -- I found both fascinating.

  2. Well, I might just have been overly charitable about all the loose ends being wrapped up so neatly. I sometimes get a bit overawed by these big names and think maybe it's just me not getting it. But certain of her points did make more sense to me at the end. For some of her five "big ideas," especially the one about self-regulating or self-policing, I definitely needed more information or more convincing. I will put Kunstler on my list - those titles sound intriguing.