Monday, July 7, 2014

Jane Jacobs was wrong !!

Jane Jacobs in her community organizing mode
Jane Jacobs (1916-2006) was perhaps the most influential urban thinker of the 20th century. Her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) shook up the planning profession and urban studies, and her other books and papers have been highly influential for many decades. Numerous biographies, books, and articles have been written about Jacobs, her ideas, her life, and her influence on scholarship and policy.

I have no problem with most of the writings and ideas of Jane Jacobs. Her books are informative and enjoyable, and I have gotten lots of good insights from her work. But in one small part of one book (The Economy of Cities, 1969), Jacobs made an erroneous claim about the origins of cities in the distant past. Whereas archaeologists had shown clearly that agriculture developed long before the first cities--in all well-documented regions, from Mesopotamia to China to Mesoamerica--Jacobs made the outrageous claim that the archaeologists were wrong. Cities had in fact arisen first, she said, and then the innovations that led to agriculture and farming (the domestication of plants and animals) happened in those earliest cities. She called this the "cities first" argument. Nonsense!

I first read The Economy of Cities as an undergraduate, writing my senior honors thesis on Teotihuacan. I almost put the book down in disgust when I read this baloney. With just my training as an anthropology major, I recognized the silliness of Jacobs's idea. I'm glad I kept reading, however, because the rest of the book provided lots of good ideas about how Teotihuacan might have grown as a result of its craft industry in the production of obsidian tools.

For many decades I didn't worry much about the cities first error of Jane Jacobs. But a few years ago I started to run into Jacobs's erroneous argument about cities before agriculture in both scholarly and popular writing. The Wikipedia article on cities stated that cities preceded agriculture, citing Jacobs. This is simply not true. I guess if there are people believing that the earth is flat, or that evolution has not happened, there might be people believing that cities came before agriculture. But from the point of evidence and science, Jacobs was wrong. I went through a period when I was contributing to Wikipedia, so I corrected the Cities article. Within a couple of days, my corrections had been reversed, and replaced with the erroneous information. I changed it again, and a second time my corrections were undone. I complained to a Wikipedia editor, that was the end of my editing and contributing to Wikipedia. (I see that the error has now been corrected).

Wikipedia is one thing, but urban textbooks are another. It turns out that a number of textbooks on urban studies and urban geography promote the erroneous views of Jacobs. These books do not cite the relevant archaeological works, but they do cite Jacobs. She is such an influential thinker and there seems to be something of a cult devoted to her ideas and their preservation. It really steamed me that students were being given false information in textbooks. So I did some Google searches, and found that a number of geographers had promoted the erroneous views in scholarly journal articles and books, including Edward Soja and Peter Taylor. I worked out my frustration in a blog post, and let it go. But then in 2012 a major journal published an article by Peter Taylor that, again, promoted the faulty views of Jacobs that cities preceded agriculture (Taylor 2012).

Enough was enough! I rounded up a couple of colleagues--Jason Ur and Gary Feinman--and we wrote a response to Taylor's paper, and it's just been published (Smith et al. 2014). We show the historical context of Jacobs's ideas about early urbanism and how she was unable to support her argument about cities before agriculture. We show the subsequent adoption of her ideas by scholars, mostly urban geographers. And we outline the archaeological evidence (which is indisputable) for agriculture preceding the earliest cities. Her argument was wrong when it was first formulated, and the archaeological evidence against it was clear. By now that evidence has piled up to the point where her claim is the logical equivalent to flat-earth or creationist stories. We were hoping for a reply from Taylor, but that hasn't happened yet.

This one error says nothing about the accuracy or importance of the other ideas of Jane Jacobs. I remain a big fan of her work, except for this one point. But its perpetuation by scholars does speak eloquently about the decline in scholarly rigor today, and about the lack of respect for archaeology by some writers. People who ought to know better have been willing to accept interpretations about archaeology without consulting archaeologists or works, but solely on the authority of Jane Jacobs, who had no archaeological training or knowledge. If such an urban icon said cities preceded agriculture, then it must be so. Well, I'm afraid Jane Jacobs was just plain wrong about this one fact.

Smith, Michael E., Jason Ur, and Gary M. Feinman
2014    Jane Jacobs’s 'Cities-First' Model and Archaeological Reality. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 38 (4): 1525-1535.

Taylor, Peter J.
2012    Extraordinary Cities: Early "City-ness" and the Origins of Agriculture and States. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36 (3): 415-447.


  1. The irony, of course, is that Jacobs probably would have approved of your testing of her ideas more than the mindless reiteration of her own words—even if she disagreed with you. The protective cult around her ideas is perhaps the least appropriate way to honor her legacy.

    Looking forward to reading your paper!

  2. Nathan - Yes, I agree about the irony!