The development of cities is a survival skill

At the scale of self or the city, economic life is the development of new ideas in response to changing life conditions.  Something changes and either consciously or unconsciously, we adapt our ways of thinking, making and doing.  New work emerges.  This is the force that drives the growth of cities.

Last week’s posts were the first of my efforts to blog my book – Nest City: The Human Drive to Thrive in Cities.  I started out with this question: Are people growing cities or are cities growing people?  I presented the intense proliferation of cities on Earth and our population growth.  In my second post, Driven to do more than merely survive, the work of Spencer Wells is front and center.  Using genetics, he has charted the migratory odyssey of the human population from a small African Village 10,000 years ago to our current population across the planet.  In an evolutionary eye-blink, our population has blossomed.  In an even shorter timeframe the number and size of our cities has grown significantly.   In my third post, Cities are engines of innovation, I reach the conclusion that cities are engines of innovation AND that innovation is an engine of cities.  As we find new ways of thinking, making and doing new things at every turn, we constantly create new work.  This is our economic life, the heart of innovation in cities.

Drawing on the work of nineteenth century embryologists and evolutionists, Jane Jacobs highlights the patterns in the generation of new work, informing us about the economic well-being of cities and how they come about.  The insight I gain from Jacobs work[1] falls into 3 categories:

  1. Habitat
  2. Relationship
  3. Meshes at scale
Figure A - Our Work in Habitat

Our habitat shapes our work, and as our habitat changes, our work changes and adapts with it (Figure A).  When fuel prices rise we become compelled to seek new technologies for fuel efficiency.  When a child is born our work within the family shifts.  When a resource is found, we find ways to extract and make use of that resource.  When the global economic marketplace struggles, we look for new ways to organize ourselves.  New work arrives in response to our habitat – our economic, social and physical contexts of the time and place.   New work does not arrive for the sake of change, but is purposefully in response to something –  known or unknown.

Figure B - Collective Work in City Habitat

New work is in relationship with other new work.  To begin, all new work builds on previous new work that has become conventional, or commonplace (Figure B).  All new work offers something different and may become the next commonplace work upon which future new work can be built.  As Jacobs puts it, new work has lineage and will serve in turn as the basis for new work.[2] The development of new work also depends on the co-development of other new work; there is significant interdependence.  Nothing happens in isolation.

The pattern of the development of new work is not a tidy linear process, but an endless mesh of interconnections that are both seen and unseen, an open-ended process that creates diversity and increased complexity.[3]  When repeated over and over, greater diversity and complexity are created.  Moreover, this pattern takes place at all scales of time and size: at the scale of self, family, city, nation, or planet; an hour, a day, a lifetime or 3000 years.  In Figure B, the work of each individual is included in the economic life of the city.  The self is nested in the city.

Figure C - Hamilton's Nested Hierarchy of City Systems

For Jacobs, the ‘development’  of new work means a qualitative change – new kinds of work, a greater diversity of work, new ways of working.  The cumulative effect of these qualitative adjustments is a world that becomes larger in scale and more complex.  Our world has evolved from a village to a territory, nation, planet and universe.  Each rise in scale brings new understanding and more complexity to which we respond.  And our responses create more complexity to which we respond.  And our responses create more complexity to which we respond, etc.  Marilyn Hamilton, author of Integral City, and Integral  City Meshworks blogger, has caught this phenomenon of cities and scale.  Imagine a nested holarchy of city systems (Figure C), where each holon (circle) is a system responding to its own life conditions.  As Hamilton puts it, “The city as a human system is a nest of systems; one cannot just look at the city as a whole or integral system without recognizing that it is made up of a series of whole systems.”[4]

At the end of my last post, I wrote that growing cities turns out to be a survival skill.  This is why:  A city with a well-developed economic life – where new work is created in response to changing conditions, in relationship with other work at various scales of complexity – is a city that has the ability to adjust and adapt and evolve.  

Cities in particular, where we are constantly changing our habitat, require us to adjust and adapt: develop new work.  For each of us, our work, and our approach to it, adds the necessary diversity to the economic life of our cities.  As Jacobs point out, new work is the qualitative development of economic life, the expansion of economic life is the quantitative implementation of new work.  

In tomorrow’s post, I will examine the word ‘habitat’. and its relationship with the quantitative expansion of economic life.





[1]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, and The Economy of Cities

[2]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p.24

[3]   Jane Jacobs, The Nature of Economies, p. 17

[4]   Marilyn Hamilton, Integral City: Evolutionary Intelligences for the Human Hive, p. 65

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