Jane Jacobs, renowned urban scholar and grass-roots activist, has recently topped the Planetizen list of the 100 leading Urban Thinkers by an ’impossibly wide lead’.

Jacobs is something of a heroine for many communities around the world, real and virtual, not least the complexity science community. She approached cities as ecosystems and suggested that over time, buildings, streets and neighbourhoods function as dynamic organisms, changing in response to how people interact with them. She explained how each element of a city – sidewalks, parks, neighbourhoods, government, economy – work together in synergy, in the same manner as the natural ecosystem. She used this understanding to show how cities work, how they break down, and how they could be better structured.

At the heart of her most famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is a sustained account of complex adaptive systems:

“…Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity… they present situations in which half a dozen or even several dozen are all varying simultaneously and in subtly interconnected ways…”  

To cite from a recent biography:

“…She found a natural order beneath the seeming chaos of cities, one that she likened to…. “delicate, teeming ecosystems.” For Jacobs, cities and economies alike are products of millions of individual decisions and ideas that combine in cooperation to form an “organic whole”…”

What is the relevance for aid agencies? Current World Bank estimates are that there are one billion extreme poor in the world, of which more than 750 million live in urban areas. This is based on a measure of people living on $2 per day, and as Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, argues, if you use other measures – for example, a proportion of national median income – urban poverty is much bigger than the World Bank measures.

Despite what might seem to be an astonishingly high proportion, research undertaken in 2006 by Lund University in Sweden shows that international organisations which focus on poverty have tended to place a very low priority to urban issues. Some researchers have put this down to a number of aid myths and a variety of institutional and historical factors, including:

  • the perception that ‘urban poverty is not as bad as rural poverty’ (Sanderson, 2002, p. 2),
  • the institutional history of aid organisations, which is rooted in rural development,
  • the belief that urban areas are the responsibility of national and municipal governments,
  • the notion that project work is easier in rural areas due to simpler institutional and demographic structures, and
  • the lack of knowledge of the long-term impacts of projects in urban contexts combined with limited financial resources

But if Jacobs was right (and the prevailing opinion from Planetizen would seem to be that she was perhaps more right than any other urban scholar) there may be another reason why aid agencies have traditionally given urban issues a wide berth.

The traditional linear, top-down approaches espoused by modern aid agencies may simply not work in urban settings that are best characterised as complex, interconnected systems. The limitations of the ‘log frame tooth fairy’, noted by Vicky Cosstick in a post last week on this blog, and the numerous associated biases of international aid may become all too evident. And instead of facing the anxiety this generates, and adjusting or changing standard operating procedures, agencies may find it easier to give the whole messy complex reality a wide berth.

This may not be entirely fair on aid agencies. There are certainly some pockets of good practice, here and there, across the aid system. But the reality is that although urbanisation has hit a tipping point in the world (2008 saw the majority of the world’s population living in cities, according to the UN), urban poverty issues have yet to hit their tipping point in the aid sector. As Helen Gayle, CEO of Care International, said in a 2007 IRIN interview “Neither the NGO community nor the donor community has co-evolved in the direction of facing urban poverty as rapidly as urban poverty has occurred” (emphasis added, it is worth noting the interesting use of complexity terminology here).

As international development and humanitarian agencies start to adapt to new urban realities, they would do well to heed the lessons from Jane Jacobs’ life and work. To find out more, the dedicated PPS web pages are a good starting point.

Join the conversation! 2 Comments

  1. […] Urbanisation,complexity and poverty – or why aid agencies should be reading Jane Jacobs […]

  2. […] Research on urban crises implicitly highlights the role of complexity science to understand the limits of aid planning approaches (for more on this, see a November Aid on the Edge post on why aid agencies should be reading Jane Jacobs) […]


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Organisations, Public Policy, Strategy, Urbanisation