Some transformative books change your life by opening up new vistas, or giving you new tools to make sense of the world, or simply by moving you emotionally. But some books change your life by building bridges between regions of your intellectual life that you'd imagined to be separate. About ten years ago, when I first started sketching out the ideas that would ultimately become my second book, Emergence, I started following a hunch about a potential connection between complexity theory and the organization of cities. I'd seen a few allusions to the idea in some of the complexity books I'd read, but had encountered almost nothing directly relevant in any of the urbanist readings I'd been pursuing. And then I got around to reading Jane Jacobs' Death and Life of Great American Cities. From page one, I felt like all the ideas I'd been shuffling around in the dark were suddenly illuminated by Jacobs' account of how dense urban neighborhoods worked. And when I got to the conclusion, where she explicitly invokes Warren Weaver's visionary essay on "organized complexity" from 1958, I remember feeling this amazing shock of recognition and connectedness. So my little trail of bread crumbs was actually leading somewhere after all, and it was Jacobs who ultimately persuaded me to keep following them.
As many of you probably know, Jacobs died yesterday at 89. The best thing I can think of to say about her is to quote the words I wrote at the end of the acknowledgments for Emergence, a book that I would never have written had I not been exposed to her ideas:
Nearly four years ago, days after Alexa and I moved into our apartment in the West Village, I finally got around to reading Jane Jacobs's Death and Life of the Great American Cities. I knew Jacobs had lived in the Village while writing the book, but I didn't know the exact whereabouts. From the very first chapter it was clear that she must have lived somewhere nearby. About a hundred pages in, with the help of the web, I tracked down her actual residence: no more than three blocks from our apartment. All through the writing of this book, I could see the roof of Jacobs's old building from the study I was working in. I could see the rooftops and the sidewalks of the whole West Village sprawled out below me, the urban ballet that Jacobs had written about so powerfully forty years before. If books like this one require acknowledgements, they have to start -- or end -- with that great, shifting energy, and its connective powers. This is a city book, both in subject matter and in inspiration. If you're reading these words in a comparably thriving city, put the book down, step outside into the roaring streets, and make your own connections.