Thoughts: Jane Jacobs, import replacement and local economies

May 4th marks the 100th birthday of one of most widely influential urban thinkers – Jane Jacobs. Jacobs wrote a series of books that took a very left-field view on the complexity of cities ranging from urban design, the value of heritage, to complexity and urban based economy.  In 1970 Jacobs wrote on the idea of a local economy based on import replacement – in short urban areas gain through exporting more than is imported.  While the ‘more’ in this case needs to be better defined (is it more apples or more financial instruments).  The concept of import replacement has remained a term that has been tossed around by urbanists and economist yet after the 2008 crisis, with high local unemployment in some regions, with projections of Europe’s declining position in the global economy, with negative interest rates (such as in Switzerland) and with increasing savings slowing the economy, it is worth touching on what import replacement means.

Jane Jacobs describes import replacement in a market driven socio-technical context where a local industry is developed that creates local products that are equal to or better than the imports.  By looking for a way to produce the item locally, it can be adapted to the local context and improved.  She offers the anecdote of  the biking industry in Japan in the 1800’s and how imported parts were eventually replaced by locally produced versions and ultimately it resulted in an entire bike manufacturing industry, exporting their products.  The story is much more complex but surely you get the gist.  Some countries have attempted to do this at a national level by imposing tax (such as Latin American embargos) however this is not necessarily providing the conditions for innovation that Jacobs described of a free-market.

Since the turn of the 19th century, production has become increasingly globalised and within a European context it has generally moved out of cities or off-shore. Mayors and developers have celebrated ‘cleaning up’ industry by replacing it with housing or offices that are more in tune with our 21st century sensibility for clean, vibrant and public spaces based on ‘smart urbanism’. What has left is much more than just industry but also a culture of making, local innovation, customisation, skilled labour and job diversity, local reuse of resources, applied technical innovation and most significantly, economic activity.  In contrast, there is an awareness at a political level of the need to re-industrialise urban areas (Industry 4.0* and Re-industrialisation*), to focus on resource cycles (the EU Circular Economy Package*) and to raise local employment (a cause for marginalisation in many European cities).  This idea of bringing industry back into cities is not welcomed by all – if many.  Some financial planners see industry as being hardly as profitable as the services economy (on paper) however in many cases disregard the greater socio-economic value*.  Europe for example

SCANNED FROM THE TORONTO STAR LIBRARY *U42 GRAPHIC Jane Jacobs. Phtoot aken by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star oct. 18, 1995.
*U42 GRAPHIC Jane Jacobs. Photo taken by Richard Lautens/Toronto Star oct. 18, 1995.

These ideas have been inspired by Jacobs’ concept of Import Replacement as described in her second book, “The Economy of Cities” to drive financial activity, jobs, innovation and city focused wealth*. As urban centres absorb a large percentage of the world’s population they are also increasingly exposed to irregularities in both climate and economy and will need to become far more resilient, independent and resourceful. Import replacement is an essential lens through which to plan for local resilience – for cities this largely boils down to how much they make. Cities need sustainable production for various reasons, yet there remains little space for it (Leigh & Hoelzel 2012). A second aspect is the valuing of locally produced resources – now often considered waste. That makes the return of local production, together with its jobs and innovation (both diversification and reproduction), essential.

While the concept of import replacement is relatively straight forward, modern cities have soft borders and strong WTO agreements that make this a far more complex challenge than simply replacing imports. This raises a few questions for people working at an urban scale that are seeking to explore import replacement.  Based on Jacob’s reading of import replacement firstly, what kinds of import replacement could occur in industrialised urban areas? Where will it occur? Finally how can the process be activated?

Is import replacement about money or value? A point that we’re constantly coming up against is why do locally produced goods not have a precedence over imported ones?  In a global world, why should we both with import replacement when we can get things cheaper?  Should we buy garlic produced in China and Vietnam because it is cheaper than the garlic produced down the road?  There are two points to consider here.  Firstly, local economic activity in fact has a much greater benefit to local communities and so employing someone locally will mean that a person will also pay for other local goods and services – in short this is an increase in local economic activity*.  The second is how to do it.  Over the last decade or more, there have been a rise in local currencies where locals have no choice but to pay in the local currency – in Bristol the Mayor is paid in Bristol Pounds*.

OSMOS has looked at organic matter at the scale of Brussels in terms of circular economy where we explore how to capture and value organic waste.  We are also looking at the potential to bring back local industry into urban areas.


  • Bieńkowska. E, 23/6/2015. “Reindustrialisation of Europe: Industry 4.0 – Innovation, growth and jobs, Forum Europe conference”, accessed 13/2/2016
  • De Backer, K., et al., 2016. “Reshoring: Myth or Reality?”, OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers, No. 27, OECD Publishing, Paris
  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation, McKinsey Center for Business and Environment & SUN, 2015, Growth Within: A circular economy vision for a competitive Europe, accessed 22/02/2016.
  • Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2015, Potential for Denmark as a Circular Economy – a Case Study From: Delivering the Circular, Ellen MacArthur Foundation, London
  • EU Commission, 2012, Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. A Stronger European Industry for Growth and Economic Recovery. Brussels.
  • European Union, 2013, Powering European Public Sector Innovation: Towards A New Architecture.  Report of the Expert Group on Public Sector Innovation, Luxembourg: Publications Office of the European Union, 2013
  • Jacobs, J., 1970, The Economy of Cities, Vintage, New York
  • Leigh, N.G. & Hoelzel, N.Z., 2012, Smart growth’s blind side: Sustainable cities need productive urban industrial land. Journal of the American Planning Association, 78(1), pp.87-103.
  • Moore, T. & Folkerson, M., 2015, Industrial Evolution: making British Manufacturing Sustainable, London.