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The late urbanist, writer and activist Jane Jacobs lives on through the work she accomplished in life. Most know her “as the ultimate champion of cities” and for opposing neighborhood demolition. In her landmark work The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961), Jacobs saw urban “improvement” projects for what they really were: urban emasculation projects that left entire districts barren. And now, three years since her death and a year plus into the economic downturn, people are taking another look at her economic ideas.
As Judith D. Schwartz points out in an article for Miller-McCune, “According to Jacobs, the engine of economic life is ‘import-replacement.’ What this somewhat clunky term means is making the products you have been buying. For example, much of New England, where I live, is rich in hardwood forest. But there is no large-scale furniture manufacturing here. Aside from what a few artisans produce for a mostly upscale market, it’s imported: Our tables, chairs and bed frames are made from fast-growing trees in Southeast Asia, shipped over and stained to look like oak, maple or cherry. If made here, we’d no longer be dependent on furniture from elsewhere; workers here would apply their own innovations to create their own products and techniques and we’d have more products to trade with other places.
“This process, replicated over and over and on a large or small scale, invigorates the economy. Workers gain skills, capital gets invested in new equipment, trading partners emerge, consumer taste gets more sophisticated, etc.”
So I was thinking that import-replacement would be an interesting, and potentially fruitful, approach to pursue with our project towns. Recently, I was chatting with Mary Kate Reny (of Reny’s Department Store in Maine) about how they prioritize business contracts and purchasing locally. I suggested this concept would make for a great educational Chamber poster to promote more local purchasing.
Schwartz continues: “[Jacobs’] 1984 book, Cities and the Wealth of Nations, zeroes in on how well-intended subsidies can deplete growth and block innovation. Wealth, she argues, is not merely a matter of assets but rather the capacity to 1) engage those assets in production and 2) adapt to changing circumstances and needs.” Another critical observation for our project towns, especially those that are considering substantial revitalization projects, like Biddeford, Maine.
And because we all enjoy serendipitous non-sequiturs...while following some of Schwartz’s article links, I came across a talk from Garland Yates of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. He was discussing their strategy to involve residents in creating community solutions themselves. Here is a Heart & Soul-esque quote from Garland that affirms the Foundation’s investments in capacity building:
“In the end, a powerful community with leadership, skills and capacity is simply crucial to a community being able to sustain progress... I guess our notion is that this whole business of community building and community transformation is really about the transformation of heart.
“It’s really about us transforming ourselves as individuals, of our families transforming themselves, helping people to transform their communities and transforming the institutions that we work with so that we can become a more useful partner. And in the aggregate, if we can mobilize institutions and partners who believe and share these notions about how you build a community and sustain it over time, and where the conditions for children and family can happen, then we’ll have mobilized this local movement to make change happen and make it permanent.”
I wonder what Jane “Champion of Cities” “Import-Replacement” Jacobs would think of this. Something tells me she’d point to all that community transformation language and say, "Yup, like I said back in ’61..."