When I first heard Jane Jacobs talk about fractals, I girded myself to endure a Zen-like explanation of the sound of one fractal clapping. But Jacobs, who died in her adopted Toronto last week just short of her 90th birthday, delighted in the fractal repeats that give order and disorder to the world - and fractal patterns help reveal her many-sided gifts as one of the most influential public intellectuals of the last century.
At the opening session of Toronto's first annual Ideas That Matter conference honouring her in 1997, Jacobs was asked where she fit into the world and ruminated on the mysterious fractal patterns infinitely repeated at different scales in ferns, snowflakes, carpets, piano concertos, streets, cities, economies, death and birth.
"Once you know about fractals, you know you live in all of them," she said. "I live in 69 Albany Avenue in Toronto, but I also live in the universe. And I'm at home in both of them."
Most obituaries zoom in on Jacobs's now-classic The Death And Life Of Great American Cities, a demolition job on the throughway-envy compulsions of city planners during the 1950s and 60s. But as its title suggests, the cyclical biological process of death and life, not the physics of the one-time rise and fall, is what intrigued her.
The bookends of her mind - Death And Life written in 1961, and The Nature Of Economies written in 2000 - reveal the bit pieces and grand scale of a pioneering ecological economist.
As early as 1961, long before the rise of the modern enviro movement, Jacobs wrote about the ecology of the city, and as late as 2000, her thrill at what makes dense forests work hearkens back to the pattern she discovered that makes city streets, neighbourhoods and thriving economies work.
Jacobs, a self-taught intellectual who packed (we might say fractalled) militant and confrontational political activism and thoughtful dialogue into one life, deserves to be ranked with the biggest of big-picture thinkers like Adam Smith, the moral philosopher who founded modern economics.
Smith lived in the era of Newtonian physics, long before biology was a science, and the "science" of economics bears this physics stamp to this day, long after physicists gave up the certainties of Newton.
I can't think of anyone who did more to bring economics into harmony with modern physics or biology than Jacobs, or of anyone who had a more profound grasp of why economies must mirror and harmonize with, not conquer and manipulate, nature. This is the larger pattern of her life and contribution.
Though celebrated as a fierce opponent of through ways, park ways and housing mega projects , her positions on these issues were part of her overall resistance to Modernism, the most powerful ideology of the last century as well as the least remarked upon, probably because it was endorsed by both the left and the right.
Imagining cities as something you drive through, highways as park ex-periences, and housing and neighbourhoods as projects tells you most of what you need to know about Modernism.
Modernism can be writ small (nano-particles or engineered genes), medium (art forms) or large (nuclear power plants and hydro dams). But its grim essence is that the 20th century gave us cheap-energy technologies that seemed to free us from the limits of living as part of nature.
Thus, asphalt gave us highways that left cobbled and dirt roads in their dust. Steel, glass, cement and electricity gave us the "skyscraper," a conceit allowing builders to give the middle finger to the gods who once brought down the Tower of Babel.
Toronto, usually seen as a backwater before the 1970s, was in fact a major and self-conscious centre of Modernism. We have countless offerings of this brutalist style, from the CN Tower to the Toronto Dominion Centre, Regent Park, St. James Town, York University and the Don Valley Parkway.
Toronto's most celebrated and important city planner in the 50s and 60s was Hans Blumenfeld, a quintes-sential Modernist as well as a courageous leftist and peacenik, who was a fan of proletarian pavement.
In New York, Jacobs led the battle against Modernist planner Robert Moses to stop an expressway through Washington Square in Greenwich Village, then left the United States to help her sons escape the draft during the Vietnam War, only to arrive in T.O. to face off against Blumenfeld and the Spadina Expressway.
She took on the best of them, and lived to tell the tale.
Toronto politics since the 70s has been a square dance where left and right, Modernist and anti- have to'd and fro'd with various partners. Jacobs was the perfect dance partner of an emerging multicultural city.
Because Modernism has been so identified with expressways and high-rises rather than traced back to its fractal battle against nature, it's seldom seen to be alive and well in many areas of today's economies.
It's still the driving force in food, where the "green revolution" (a polluted combination plate of fossil-fuel fertilizers, petrochemical pesticides, irrigation and hybrid seeds) did to community food systems of the 1950s and 60s what throughways did to neighbourhoods.
And it motors today's genetic engineering (just reflect on the arrogance and presumption of that project), which hopes to turn nature's chance and diversity into manageable factory floor products.
Modernists still hold the cards in the power game, which is why death-defying nuclear power and similar megaprojects are still favoured by the energy establishment.
Jacobs was a fierce critic of these Modernist outcroppings. She was on the board of Energy Probe, a heritage anti-nuke group, and gave the first Jane Jacobs Award to Mary Lou Morgan, the inspired food entrepreneur who helped shape FoodShare, a leading centre of community food systems.
In her last book, Dark Age Ahead, Jacobs backed most initiatives of the food counterculture, including pasture-fed livestock and "relationship-based marketing."
She loved Toronto's many farmers markets, especially the gritty one at Dufferin Grove Park. Several months ago, Jacobs gave Janice Etter, one of Toronto's leading local food and pedestrian activists, a homemade Christmas present: a jar of peach jam. "It's going to stay right on our living room sideboard," says Etter.
Size doesn't matter in the fractal world, and Jane Jacobs can be remembered for such small gifts, for the new generation of city planners and activists she inspired, and for her street-smart and eco-smart biologically inspired economics that may yet save us all.