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Jane Jacobs Five Years Later

Jane Jacobs passed away five years ago on April 25, 2006. She will be remembered for her matchless contribution to cities throughout the world.
Less remembered—sometimes belittled—is her work on nations, national sovereignty, and the relationship between cities and the development of nations. Yet her third and her forth books dealt specifically with these issues and, in light of the current election campaign in Canada, they are still very relevant. The Question of Separatism (1980) and Cities and the Wealth of Nations (1984) were published in the wake of her two seminal books on cities, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) and The Economy of Cities (1968), both written before she moved to Canada.

Nagging questions remain five years after her death? Why has the work of a leading thinker on the unfolding story of nations received so little attention? Why is the only book she wrote about her adopted country, The Question of Separatism, never discussed? Why, unlike her other six books, was it out of print for 25 years? How can 35 experts put together a 400-page anthology, What we see, Advancing the observations of Jane Jacobs (2010), without mentioning the book?

Jacobs answered these questions in part in an interview she granted me in 2005. She pointedly broke with her no-interview policy because this interview was to focus on her book The Question of Separatism, Quebec and the struggle over sovereignty, 25 years after it appeared and ten years after the 1995 Quebec referendum on sovereignty.

Asked if the media ever talked to her about her book on separatism, Jacobs replied, “No. Practically never! You’re the first.” Explaining the silence she added: “Don’t want to think about it… or engage in talking pros and cons and why people feel this way. It’s an unwelcome subject (…) It was fear that there would be no more identity for Canada, that it would disintegrate if Quebec were to separate. It was foolish because there are so many examples of separatism, and nothing has disintegrated, unless they went to war. There were over thirty of these cases in very recent times since the issue of Quebec was raised in 1980.”

As in her other books, Jane Jacobs brought to bear her renowned capacity to observe the real world, avoided ideology and sloganeering, and set forth practical win-win solutions. Using examples, particularly that of Norway and Sweden, she discussed the timeless issues that influence—or afflict—debate on separatism in the world, such as emotion, national size and paradoxes of size, duality and federation, and the relationship between competing urban centres.

Jacobs posited that large regional cities and the nations they drive require a degree of political sovereignty to develop successfully, failing which they become “passive and provincial,” relegated to the shadow of a dominant city region. That is what she so accurately predicted about Montreal and Toronto, a result of the “gathering force” of national centralization concentrated in her home city of Toronto. She added that the desire for Quebec sovereignty was not about to disappear, unless of course Montrealers—and Quebecers—were ready to resign themselves to being a satellite of the greater Toronto city region. Ever the pragmatist, Jane Jacobs also showed how all parties stand to gain from a new arrangement that respects the Quebec people’s will for sovereignty.

The actors have changed since 1980 but the script remains the same. For example, in Canada’s upcoming May 2 federal election, Quebec will likely return a majority of the sovereigntist Bloc Québécois members to the federal parliament, thus perpetuating an 18-year stalemate. This would not have surprised Jane Jacobs, who stood behind her 1980 conclusions. When I asked her in 2005 if she would write the same book again, she smiled confidently, “Yes, not because it is in my head, but because that’s the way it is in the world, and it still holds.”

Five years after her death, hopefully we will benefit from her work on nations as much as we have from her work of cities.

ROBIN PHILPOT is Montreal writer and publisher whose 2005 interview with Jane Jacobs is published in the new edition of The Question of Separatism, Quebec and the Struggle over Sovereignty (Baraka Books 2011)

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