Konch Magazine - Food for thought on Jane Jacobs, five years after

Food for thought on Jane Jacobs, five years after her death By Robin Philpot

Jane Jacobs passed away five years ago on April 25, 2006. She will be remembered for her matchless contribution to cities and urban development throughout the world, but particularly to the two cities she called home, New York and Toronto.

What is less remembered—and sometimes belittled—is her work on nations, national sovereignty, and the relationship between cities and the development of nations. Yet her third and her forth books dealt specifically with these issues. The Question of Separatism (1980) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations(1984) were published in the wake of her two seminal books on cities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and The Economy of Cities (1968), both written in New York before she moved to Toronto.

Nagging questions remain five years after her death? Why has the work of a leading North American thinker on the unfolding story of nations received so little attention? Why is the only book she wrote about her adopted country of Canada, never discussed? And why, unlike other six books, was it out of print for 25 years? How is it that 35 experts  could put together a 400-page anthology about Jane Jacobs, What we see, Advancing the observations of Jane Jacobs in 2010, without even mentioning her book The Question of Separatism.

Jacobs answered these questions in part in an interview she granted me in 2005, a year before she died. She pointedly broke with her policy of refusing interviews because this one was to focus on her book The Question of Separatism, Quebec and the struggle over sovereignty, twenty-five years after it appeared and ten years after the 1995 Quebec referendum.

When asked if the media ever talked to her about her book on separatism, Jacobs replied, “No. Practically never. You’re the first.” And to explain why she added: “They don’t want to think about it… or engage in talking pros and cons and why people feel this way. It’s an unwelcome subject (…) It was fear that there would be no more identity for Canada, that it would disintegrate if Quebec were to separate. It was foolish because there are so many examples of separatism, and nothing has disintegrated, unless they went to war. There were over thirty of these cases in very recent times since the issue of Quebec was raised in 1980.”

As in her other books, which continue to be studied and appreciated, Jane Jacobs brought to bear her renowned capacity to observe and analyse the real world, avoided ideology and sloganeering, and set forth practical win-win solutions. Using examples, particularly that of Norway and Sweden, she discussed the timeless issues that influence—or afflict—debate on separatism in the world, such as emotion, national size and paradoxes of size, duality and federation, and the relationship between competing urban centres.

Jacobs posited that large regional cities and the nations they drive require a degree of political sovereignty to develop successfully, failing which they become “passive and provincial,” relegated to the shadow of a dominant city region. That is what she so accurately predicted about Montreal and Toronto, a result of what she described as the “gathering force” of national centralization concentrated in her home city of Toronto. She added that the desire for Quebec sovereignty was not about to disappear, that is unless Montreal and Quebecers as a whole were ready to resign themselves to being a satellite of the greater Toronto city region. Ever the pragmatist, however, Jane Jacobs showed how, from a trade and development standpoint, both parties in a debate on separatism stand to gain if a new arrangement is found that respects the people’s will for sovereignty.

The actors have changed since 1980 but the script remains the same in 2011. For example, in Canada’s upcoming May 2 federal election, Quebec will likely return a majority of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois members to the federal parliament as it has for the past 18 years. 
Jane Jacobs, who stood firmly behind her 1980 conclusions, would not have been surprised. When asked in 2005 if she would write the same book again, she smiled confidently, “Yes, not because it is in my head, but because that’s the way it is in the world, and it still holds.”

Let us hope that five years after her death, with her book The Question on Separatism available once again, the world will benefit as much from her work on nations as it does from her analysis of cities.

* Robin Philpot is a Montreal writer and publisher. His 2005 interview with Jane Jacobs is published in the new edition of Jane Jacobs’ book The Question of Separatism, Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty (Baraka Books 2011)