Jane Jacobs – Citizen Economist

Photo taken by Frank Lennon/Toronto Star Dec. 21, 1968.

My first introduction to the extraordinary intellect of Jane Jacobs (whose 100th birthday would have been today) was at the 1983 Annual Schumacher Lecture.

In her talk, “The Economy of Regions,” she argued for regional economic diversity, complexity, and interdependence. She imagined a myriad of small industries producing for regional markets—industries that depended on local materials, local labor, local capital, local transport systems, and appropriately scaled technology to conduct their business. She pictured the fruits of this regional industry spilling over to support a rich cultural life in the city at the hub of the region. This bustling creative energy would then foster innovation and industry, filling in the “niches” of the economy.

“Cities don’t work like perpetual-motion machines,” she said in her lecture. “They require constant new inputs in the form of innovations based on human insights. And if they are to generate city regions, they require repeated, exuberant episodes of import replacing, which are manifestations of the human ability to make adaptive imitations.”

In the question period following the lecture Jane Jacobs was asked how best to foster these regional economies. Her answer was “regional currencies.” She called regional currencies one of the most elegant tools for stimulating and regulating production and trade in a region.*

When Bob Swann, President of the Schumacher Center, heard this, his eyes lit up and his knees trembled. He was a staunch advocate of local currencies. Was Jane Jacobs a partner with him in this advocacy? He couldn’t wait to pursue the topic with her.

He had his chance on the drive back to the airport. He talked enthusiastically about the role of regional currencies in shaping regional economies. We described the Self-Help Association for a Regional Economy (SHARE), a funding circle that the Schumacher Center developed in the Berkshires through a local bank to give citizens experience in making productive loans to small businesses. The soundest way to place new money in circulation is through the making of productive loans.  SHARE was a preparatory stage towards the launch of BerkShares, a local currency for the Berkshire region.

LEFT: Susan Witt, Peter C. Webber (State Senator for Berkshire County) with his son, and Joe Savage, founding board member of SHARE, in 1985.

As she was leaving, Jane Jacobs turned and said, “Please take that $500 honorarium speaking fee and open a SHARE account for me. I want to stay informed about development of this program and participation would be the best way.” She said it with a twinkle. She knew how it would delight us.

That was when I first experienced the great warmth of spirit of Jane Jacobs. She championed “ideas that matter,” but she also championed the people putting those ideas into practice.

In Systems of Survival she highlights innovative citizen-driven economic initiatives including SHARE. In Dark Age Ahead she named the Schumacher Center’s community land trust work as a positive indicator for the renewal of American Culture at a time of otherwise failing civic institutions.

She remained a valued mentor until her death in April of 2006.  I regret she did not see the printed BerkShares, issued in September of that same year.

Her thinking still shapes our colleague Alice Maggio’s development of BerkShares as she works with regional institutions to explore opportunities for more local purchasing; as she instructs youth in the Entry to Entrepreneurship class (E2E) to consider import-replacement businesses that meet the region’s basics needs rather than their personal whimsy; as she shares the survey for citizens and business owners alike to image what can be made in the Berkshires that is not here yet; and to parse out the pre-conditions — land access, workforce training, advance marketing, equipment identification — that need to be in place to make those community-supported industries successful.

Above all, Jane Jacobs was a believer in the potential of engaged citizens, who know and love their own communities, to work naturally and instinctively together in town meetings and sidewalk conversations to create the numerous exuberant iterations of import-replacement that will revive our regional economies, our democracy, our society, and bring about a more diverse, rich, and sustainable future.

We remember and honor Jane Jacobs on the occasion of her Centenary.