Thursday, June 18, 2015

Henry and Jane would have walked together

This Saturday, June 20, something new comes to Barrie: Jane’s Walk, a free, citizen-led walking tour inspired by urban activist and writer Jane Jacobs. Held periodically in different cities, Jane’s Walks let people tell stories about their communities, explore their cities, and connect with neighbours. Our walk begins at 1 PM at Barrie City Hall.
The timing is ideal because just last week I received the latest issue of the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, themed Public Intellectuals: Jane Jacobs and Henry George. It compares and contrasts the views, through their writings, of two people active a century apart but with a surprisingly complementary outlook on the problems of poverty and urban decay.
In his world-famous 1879 book Progress and Poverty, Henry George observed that the greatest levels of wealth were found and indeed produced in cities, yet that was also where one found the deepest poverty, hence what we now call the widest wealth gap. Applying his understanding of classical economics, he revealed the problem’s root was how land was owned, rented, and taxed; basically, those who owned land could profit from the efforts of those who didn’t without making their own contribution. He noted that land values arose from their surroundings, whether public infrastructure or private economic activity; these values were not created by the landowners themselves. His solution, land value taxation, was for this commonly-created value to be recaptured, allowing for the reduction or elimination of all other stifling taxes, including wage tax, sales tax, or property tax on the value of buildings.
Importantly, he noted that so long as land values were not fully captured, there would always be speculators holding prime urban land idle, because they could profit more by selling at inflated values than by putting the land to productive use. This causes artificial land scarcities, driving up rents and forcing new buildings to be taller or to sprawl into green fields, eventually to the benefit of the speculators themselves.
Jacobs, a century later, focused on buildings, neighbourhoods, and the organic activity of city residents. She opposed central planning that destroyed old, dilapidated neighbourhoods to replace them with uniform new “projects” intended to help the poor but ultimately trapping them. She promoted higher density, short blocks, and mixed uses as a way to create thriving local economies, and famously declared “new ideas need old buildings,” because they offered low-cost spaces for new enterprise, or new residential forms, to start up.
Both George and Jacobs were anti-Malthusians; both believed the density of cities did not have to mean unhealthy crowding, but rather that more people in close association could more efficiently share resources and ideas allowing highly productive, richer lives. Where the kind of neighbourhood redevelopment Jacobs envisioned could sometimes lead to gentrification, pricing lower-income residents out of their own improving neighbourhoods, the application of George’s land value tax would keep land prices stable and ensure the public shared in any rising land values, and promote general improvement across the wider city instead of only in the areas that were currently “hot”.
Jacobs believed in pushing all the right buttons
Barrie’s Jane’s Walk has been organized by Kristin Dibble Pechkovsky and will be led by fellow planners David Stinson and Al McNair, and feature Barrie’s own Town Crier Steve Travers. Come out to learn about Barrie’s history, natural resources, and the need to create good habitats for people. For more information, including maps and routes, visit

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner as "Jane's Walk a good way to connect with community"
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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