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A caution on Hong Kong envy, an Atlantic Yards cameo, and Jane Jacobs

I have an essay in the online publication Urban Omnibus (a project of the Architectural League of New York) this week headlined A Caution on Hong Kong Envy, pointing out the tension between the enthusiasm of New York officials for Hong Kong's rational, high-rise development and the dismay Hong Kong residents feel at top-down planning, as shown at two recent conferences.

Yes, there's a happy medium to be sought, and New York--where density is unevenly distributed both within the city and within the region--is coming from a different direction than is Hong Kong, which went high-rise at warp speed in the mid-20th century.

The AY angle

And yes, there's an Atlantic Yards angle. As I write:
Or consider how the Port Authority’s [Executive Director Christopher] Ward, at the New York conference, suggested that the resistance to the massive Atlantic Yards project in Brooklyn stemmed from locals’ discomfort with a dramatic shift in density. While that shift surely generated dismay, an equal measure of discomfort derives from the perception that Atlantic Yards has been a sweetheart deal, with a single developer anointed public land before any planning process, and with public amenities such as open space coming late rather than early. in Hong Kong, it’s important to get the balance right between the development business and the central authorities entrusted with the public interest.
After all, Atlantic Yards opponents did wind up supporting the Unity Plan, which would have high density, though not as much, and essentially limited to the railyards.

And had the dramatic shift in density suggested in the graphic at right (from the Final Environmental Impact Statement) arrived through a more public process, such as a rezoning, a policy statement about the importance of density near this transit hub, and an RFP open to all developers, it might have met with some more public acceptance--especially if there had been an explicit reduction in density.

Note that Atlantic Yards is unlikely to be built at the density approved,, which means the promised benefits would be less--even though alternative (and reduced) measures of benefits were not part of the public review.

The lesson from Jacobs: skepticism

It's unwise to speculate just what might famed urbanist Jane Jacobs would say about specific projects. As critic Paul Goldberger wrote in Block By Block, the companion to a 2007 Jacobs exhibit at the Municipal Art Society:
So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism.
Democracy in New York

Metropolis columnist Karrie Jacobs (no relation), a Brooklyn resident, attended the first of the two Hong Kong conferences and visited some of the world's rapidly growing cities; in a December 2008 column headlined Boomtown Blues, wrote:
Of course, what Dubai, Shanghai, and Hong Kong have in common is a top-down approach to development... In the West, we envy China’s ability to build on a monumental scale—the Bei­jing airport! The Bird’s Nest! A subway system quadrupled in size in five years!—and completely change the face of its cities, but residents don’t seem to have a role to play in how their cities are remade, aside from getting out of the way. In Hong Kong, public participation is carefully rationed, and recent protests over the demolition of beloved landmarks—such as the Central Star Ferry Pier and the Queen’s Pier—are a subset of a larger movement advocating open government.

What I’ve realized is that for all the grumbling in New York about how Jane Jacobs–ism stands in the way of exciting new developments, it’s revealing to see what happens in cities where there is no Jane. Because what these people are really talking about when they complain about the Jane Jacobs mentality is democracy, the inconvenient fact that we live in a society where ordinary people can have an impact on the political process. My visits to Asia have taught me that there’s a significant upside to routine NIMBYism, the insufferable ­community-board dramas, the narrow-minded neighborhood crusades, and our Byzantine urban-land-use review process. Democracy may be slow, messy, and dysfunctional, but it sure beats the alternative.
That doesn't mean the status quo really works, though. The city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), as shown at a recent hearing of the Charter Review Commission, needs reform. And some major supporters of the ULURP status quo don't think that the state override of zoning--the less-democratic process that led to Atlantic Yards--is the way to go.

The question is what's next. As discussed in my Urban Omnibus piece, looking at Hong Kong doesn't offer direct lessons.



    Two comments:

    1) It seems to me that much of the current public discussion about Jane Jacobs and "planning" centers on a false dichotomy that ignores and obscures what Jane Jacobs actually wrote (especially in, but not limited to, her most famous book, "Death and Life of Great American Cities").

    The real issue isn't (or shouldn't be) just a choice between "central" planning vs. "community" planning, but also a choice between "planning" (by either central government or by local community groups) vs. "non-planning" -- or, to restate it more precisely, the real choice also is (or should be) between "micro-managed" planning for cities (be it by central governments or by community groups) vs. just basic "planning" for cities (e.g., for roads, bridges, highways, parks, sewers, etc.), which is essentially the “non-planning” that produced, for instance, virtually all of the New York City (including Brooklyn, etc.) that we know and love today.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thurs., August 12, 2010, 8:40 p.m.

    (To be continued.)


    2) I strongly disagree with both the basic approach and the apparent meaning of Paul Goldberger's comment, “So, if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for a city form but rather a perceptual model for skepticism.”

    First, with regard to the apparent meaning:

    Perhaps Goldberger wasn’t saying what he really meant to say in that statement but, when one looks at what he’s actually written, it seems that he is basically saying is, “Don’t read and evaluate in a rational, scientific way the actual content of Jane Jacobs’ writings – as these writings are basically worthless except for their compelling skepticism towards any established thinking.”

    I think a better approach to Jacobs work is to recognize that Jacobs was a social scientist who, in her writings, expounded certain theories about how and why certain “systems” (like cities, economies and civilizations) stagnate/decay or flourish. Her writings should not just be blindly accepted as gospel, of course, but it seems to me that they at least deserve the same respect and scrutiny accorded the writings of other “serious” social scientists (e.g., social scientists who've done the sufficient research, etc.). In other words, her writings deserve to be read and then evaluated, pro or con, on the basis of the facts and logic that have been presented -- and not just airily dismissed, as Goldberger seems to do (and without ever having provided, as far as I know, any serious, detailed evaluation of the particulars of Jacobs’ work, either), as being valuable mostly for the skepticism they express towards established thinking.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thurs., August 12, 2010, 8:40 p.m.

    (To be continued.)


    I think a more useful approach to the work of Jane Jacobs is to ask the following four questions:

    1) What did she actually write?

    2) What did she mean? (In other words, how can any apparent internal contradictions best be resolved to create a rational whole?)

    3) Is any of it valid?

    4) How can the valid parts be usefully applied to the current world?

    Benjamin Hemric
    Thurs., August 12, 2010, 8:40 p.m.

  4. Well, she also famously omitted illustrations in Death and Life because she wanted people to look around them. Isn't there a connection between that and skepticism?


    Norman Oder wrote:

    Well, she also famously omitted illustrations in Death and Life because she wanted people to look around them. Isn't there a connection between that and skepticism?

    Benjamin Hemric writes:

    As I read it, the point of Jacobs’ comments about the absence of illustrations (e.g., drawings or photographs) in “Death and Life . . . ”is to tell her readers that real life experiences in cities can illustrate her ideas (and thus confirm them, too) much better than any drawings or photos ever could. Furthermore, it seems to me that she is also saying, perhaps, that drawings or photos are even sometimes more distortions/distractions rather than intellectual aides – in the end, sometimes frustrating a writer’s intent rather than furthering it – and that drawings and photos (as opposed to real life experiences) can also be made to “lie” too. So, while Jacobs was indeed a skeptic of established thinking, I don’t that’s really the point of her comments regarding the absence of illustrations in “Death and Life . . .”

    However, Jacobs is, indeed, a true skeptic of uncritical thinking, though – including the uncritical acceptance of her own writings – and does, I believe, actually explicitly invite readers at a number of points in “Death and Life . . ” (and in her other books too) to critically examine even her own theories. She’s also made similar comments in interviews. (Unfortunately, however, I don’t have the quotes handy at the moment, though.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Fri., August 13, 2010, 9:27 p.m.

    (To be continued.)


    But it seems to me none of this is really relevant to the Paul Goldberger comment under discussion. It seems to me that in his comment, Paul Goldberger isn’t referring to Jacobs’ various challenges to her readers to critically examine her own theories but is referring instead to Jacobs’ penchant for challenging the “conventional wisdom” of the day. And, it seems to me that he is saying, furthermore (and without providing any substantial analysis or data to back it up) that Jacobs own theories are no longer particularly helpful (if they ever were), so her real contribution now is really the fact that she’s shown us how one can successfully challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.

    So while Jane Jacobs does indeed challenge her readers to 1) read and think about her books and 2) then compare them against the real world (although that’s not what she’s really saying in the “illustrations” quote), Paul Goldberger seems to be saying something very different. His comment seems to me to be conclusory and saying something like, “There’s really no need to read carefully what Jacobs has written – it’s not really useful [in his opinion] anymore anyway. However, the real value of Jacobs’ work [in his opinion] is that she’s showed us how to successfully challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.

    One writer, Jacobs, invites people to carefully read her work and to then critically examine it; the other writer, Goldberger, discourages people from carefully reading her work and then critically examining it – as he’s already “proven” [in his opinion] that her work no longer has much value, other than the fact that it shows how one might successfully challenge the conventional wisdom of the day.

    Of course, I don’t disagree with the idea that one should critically examine Jacobs’ work (or the work of any other author, for that matter). But I do think that one should at least carefully read what Jacobs has actually written first – and not discuss, instead, as so many people (including Goldberger) seem to do these days, what people “say” she wrote.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Fri., August 13, 2010, 9:27 p.m.


    1) Let me quickly add that in my comments on Paul Goldberger, I've really been discussing what I believe to be your (Norman Oder's) interpretation of the Goldberger quote (and the larger "Block by Block" essay that contains it). But, of course, perhaps Goldberger really doesn't agree with this particular interpretation of what he wrote? (In other words, maybe this isn't what he is really saying.)

    So I think it's important to acknowledge this possibility and to also examine more of Goldberger's actual writings -- in order to avoid doing to Goldberger what I've criticized others for doing to Jacobs (i.e., talking about what people "say" she wrote, instead of about what she actually did write).

    On the other hand, though, I've read a number of other comments that Goldberger has made over the years about Jane Jacobs (and also attended two of his talks on Ground Zero, as well as the speech that this "Block by Block" essay is excerpted from), and it does seem to me that your interpretation is a fairly accurate one, especially when the whole sentence is actually quoted. Here's the whole sentence -- I've added some additional quotation marks for emphasis, and capitalized the portion that was originally left out as well:

    "So if there is any way to follow Jane Jacobs, it is to think of her as showing us not a physical model for city form but rather a ["]perceptual model["] for skepticism, A MODEL FOR TRUSTING OUR EYES AND OUR COMMON SENSE MORE THAN THE COMMON WISDOM."

    Let me also point out that in a number his essays, including one from the mid-1980s, I believe Goldberger has said that Jane Jacobs' writings are the new "common wisdom." So if this is true, it does seem that Goldberger here is casually "dissing" the actual theories of Jane Jacobs and discouraging people from carefully reading her work for themselves and then critical evaluating it in a rational, scientific way. (It seems to me that, in the comment that's been quoted, Goldberger is suggesting, more or less, that one should go with one's gut instincts instead.)

    (To be continued.)

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., Aug. 14, 2010, 3:35 p.m.

  8. 2) I also must say, after having taken a quick second look at a couple of his essays on Jacobs, that Goldberger's writings on Jacobs seem to me to be quite confused -- so much so that it's hard to tell WHAT he is actually "saying" sometimes.

    For instance, Goldberger (like me) seems to feel that many people misunderstand what Jacobs actually wrote. But he also seems to feel that "her" work has become the new "common wisdom." But if misunderstandings of her work are so rife, how could "HER" work be the new "common wisdom"? Wouldn't it make more sense to say, instead, something along the lines of the following?: "The truth of the matter is that it is misleading mis-interpretations of Jane Jacobs' work -- not the real thing -- that have become today's 'common wisdom'"

    And if this is the case, why criticize the work of Jacobs herself, as Goldberger seems occasionally to do here and elsewhere, for being the new common wisdom, when the new common wisdom is, in fact, the misinterpretation of her work by others? Shouldn't Goldberger be more interested, instead, in establishing first what Jacobs actually did write and then critically evaluating that (using logic and facts, and not just intuition)?

    And when Goldberger does criticize Jacobs herself (and not just those who've misinterpreted her), his criticisms seem to have their own problems:

    a) Oftentimes they seem to me to be criticisms of things that she hasn't really said (i.e., his own misinterpretations).

    b) He seems to rarely provide any kind of back-up for his pronouncements (e.g., a chapter number, etc.). In other words, he seems to feel that his criticisms of her work are so self-evidently true that no back up argumentation is needed.

    c) He seems to ignore large portions of Jacobs' writings that run counter to his own [mis-]interpretations of her writings.

    But rather than getting too sidetracted into an extended discussion of Goldberger's work on Jacobs -- which to be fair to him would involve lots of time going through his essays and quoting them -- I'd like to emphasize that I think it's more useful to actually read the works of Jane Jacobs herself and to then ask onself the four questions mentioned in part three of my August 12, 2010 comment.

    Benjamin Hemric
    Sat., Aug. 14, 2010, 3:49 p.m.


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