Jane Jacobs and protecting the environment

June 8, 2018 by Joshua
in Models

In response to The Champion of Little Plans, an article on Jane Jacobs by Nate Storring, who edited a book of her short works, and having moved to Greenwich Village in 1999 partly influenced by her work, I wrote

Vital Little Plans

Vital Little Plans


For those who have read Death and Life of Great American Cities and The Power Broker, most of this article tells history you already know.After that part, it’s about applying her principles to today’s issues beyond cities to entrepreneurship versus large corporations and red tape and how to serve people and their lives.

The article didn’t apply her principles to the environment, where I find a relevant parallel: people in traffic jams felt, “if only this road had another lane, then I wouldn’t have to endure this traffic jam” so we built more lanes and roads. After generations, people learned that empty roads helped only temporarily, eventually leading people to use them and create more traffic than before the expansion.

The parallel is that people see pollution today and think, “if only a new technology reduced this pollution, I wouldn’t have to breathe this polluted air / endure sea levels rising / etc” so we develop new technologies. We haven’t yet learned the parallel with roads that more technologies help only temporarily, eventually leading people to use them and create more pollution.

I’ve overstated things to simplify, but there are shades of gray. We need some roads, but more isn’t necessarily better and short-term solutions often worsen the situation. Same with technology, as Jevon’s paradox, among other effects, illustrates.

In complex systems, if you don’t address the leverage point of the beliefs and goals of the system, changing elements in it rarely changes the system, no matter how wonderful the new technology seems, be it LED lighting, nuclear power, carbon sequestration, space travel, and so on. In a system based on beliefs that we can expand out of any problem, they’ll make the system expand faster. In a system designed to serve people, new technologies would help serve people better, but we don’t live in such a system yet.

We could use an environmental Jane Jacobs.

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