A Quiet Overthrow

The paradigmatic prescience of Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs remains celebrated for her contributions to urban planning, most famously in her first book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, released in 1961. But Jacobs, who died in 2006, staked her own claim to posterity on the insights of her second book. Published fifty years ago, in 1969, The Economy of Cities is even more audacious than its predecessor. In it, Jacobs dismisses centuries of economic theory with a high hand, relying instead on acute observation and powerful inductive reasoning — the art for which she is justly renowned — to paint an original city-­centred picture about how and why economies grow and falter. She claims nothing less than to have discovered the key to all economic growth.

“If I were to be remembered as a really important thinker of the century,” Jacobs told Reason magazine years later, in 2001, “the most important thing I’ve contributed is my...