Today the Kilbourne Group, founded by Fargo businessman and Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Burgum, is hosting a walk in downtown Fargo to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Jane Jacobs.
You might not know who that is, but she wrote one of the most influential books of the 20th century, titled The Death and Life of Great American Cities, and chances are the community you’re living in now was shaped to one degree or another by her ideas.
She’s such a big deal that Google honored her with one of their “doodles.” And rightfully so. Her titanic battles with New York City planning czar Robert Moses are by themselves worth learning about (this is a good place to start).
I’m happy that Jacobs’ legacy is being honored. Her views were complex and nuanced, but if they can be put in a nutshell she was an opponent of heavy-handed urban planning and a proponent of allowing communities to grow organically in accordance with the wishes of those who live in them.
Which is why it’s ironic that Burgum’s company was honoring her yesterday.
Before launching his campaign for governor Burgum was probably best known as something of a strident proponent of government policies pushing denser, downtown-centric development. As he told Fargo city leaders at a meeting in November, taxpayers must subsidize and promote dense development because “the free market won’t deliver that.”
It’s always dangerous to presume what famous thinkers might have reacted to modern situations, but I’m not sure that Jacobs would have been happy with Burgum and his company. As Jesse Walker wrote for Reason back in 1998, the legacy of Jacobs’ ideas are often co-opted by people who misunderstand them:
So Jacobs’s vision is open-ended and dynamic. The Sustainables, meanwhile, dream of closed systems. Jacobs thinks progress comes from small enterprises making incremental changes, with a healthy dose of trial and error. The Sustainables think it derives from design. In a Jacobean world, businesses make money by meeting consumers’ needs. Under sustainable development, they follow government incentives, jump for federal subsidies, and participate in “public-private partnerships.”
He continues (emphasis mine):
The funny thing is, a lot of Sustainables think they’re following in Jacobs’s footsteps. Many of them read her damning indictment of city planners in The Death and Life of Great American Cities; many embraced its powerful assault on the freeway projects and urban renewal schemes that were wiping out living neighborhoods and replacing them with concrete.
Agreeing that those projects were awful, they added Jacobs to their pantheon–and proceeded to dream up a more “sustainable” set of transit projects and redevelopment plans. If it was wrong to wipe out high-density districts, they figured, they should go out to the suburbs and try to force high densities on a population that doesn’t want them, in an economic landscape where they’re inappropriate.
If that doesn’t sound like Doug Burgum and the Kilbourne Group’s efforts in the Fargo area, I don’t know what does.
I’m glad the Kilbourne Group is working to honor Jacobs and her legacy. Maybe they can also come to appreciate her views which aren’t compatible with their agenda for Fargo.