Reconsidering Jane Jacobs: writers suggest that planners have become disempowered; shouldn't fealty to developers be part of the equation?
Page's introduction sets out the challenge:
Is there any other urbanist whose ideas more people profess to understand who is less understood? And is there another urbanist whose influence is so widely felt even where her name is not well known? We suggest in this volume that the answer is again “no”: Many who profess to understand Jacobs’s ideas don’t, and many more who profess not to know of her work have in fact been deeply influenced by it. Like Freud’s, her ideas are everywhere, named or unnamed.
...Jane Jacobs has had lasting power for many reasons, but one of them certainly is that she offers something for everyone. As Francis Morrone has noted, Jane Jacobs has drawn the praise of new urbanists and preservationists, free-market capitalists, and advocates of government regulation. She is a right-wing libertarian, and she is a left-wing antiwar protester. She cherishes the small-business owner and rails against bureaucrats who limit innovation, and she is also the symbol of one of the things conservatives in the 2008 presidential election scoffed at: “the community activist.”
The AY angle
There's no explicit mention of Atlantic Yards in the new collection, but, as I suggest below, there are arguments that connect to it.
Notably, I don't disagree with the argument that planners today wield too little clout, but I'd argue that the issue is not simply righting the balance with an empowered (and potentially NIMBY-ist, or underinformed) public.
Rather, in a developer-driven planning process, as shown in New York City with Atlantic Yards, government planners should reflect the public interest.
On Jacobs's motivations
In one essay in the book, "The Unknown Jane Jacobs: Geography, Propagandist, City Planning Idealist," Peter Laurence observes that Jacobs, who had been writing positively about urban renewal for the magazine Architectural Forum, had begun to feel uneasy about it, and personally guilty:
In other words, Jacobs’s motivations were deeper and more personal than previous biographies have acknowledged, and so were her experiences and her ambitions for a better understanding of cities and their design and planning. Moreover, her opportunity to make a contribution did not come about because she was an amateur, as the prevailing stereotype holds, but because, by early 1958, she was already recognized as one of the most knowledgeable writers in the country on redevelopment and the city. Although her ideas about cities were fundamentally transformed in the late 1950s, her writings and thinking about the city spanned 20 years, and it was this body of experience that led to her opportunity to be part of a historic grant initiative funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, which helped establish the new field of urban design and produced such seminal works as Kevin Lynch’s Image of the City (1960).Similarly, contributor Samuel Zipp, author of Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (Oxford University Press, 2010), said at a panel March 31 at the Museum of the City of New York that, in the history of urban renewal, Jacobs must be seen as catalyzing and invigorating a movement against modernism that already existed, not as launching such a movement.
On New Urbanism and Greenwich Village
In another essay in the collection, "Time, Scale, and Control: How New Urbanism Mis(Uses) Jane Jacobs," Jill L. Grant cautions against planners today who generalize from Jacobs's mileu to create walkable semi-urban communities. (Of course Jacobs famously omitted illustrations, encouraging readers to look for themselves.)
Generalizing from conditions in Greenwich Village in the 1950s to the prerequisites for good urban design, as Jacobs did, warrants careful dissection. Jacobs witnessed a particular moment in American culture: the end of one era and transition to another. In the 1950s any responsible adult could reprimand an errant child and assume responsibility for disciplining rowdies on the street. In those days America appreciated its power and sense of cultural superiority; European immigrants celebrated their cultural heritage as they immersed themselves in the melting pot. Jacobs described a period when TV was such a novelty that owners brought sets out onto the street on summer evenings to share with their neighbors. The New York of the 1950s represented a time before air-conditioning drove people inside behind closed windows and before widespread ownership of cars gave working-class people the means to commute to homes in the suburbs. The vitality, social control, and intense interaction of Jacobs’s home district of Hudson Street reflected the social, economic, and cultural conditions of that particular era. While conceding that the physical form likely played a role in the urban qualities Jacobs saw in the 1950s, I’m not convinced that form merited the supremacy Jacobs gave it. The short blocks and dense mix of uses of Greenwich Village accommodated the intense street theater that Jacobs described, but it did not produce that interplay. The social and economic conditions of the 1950s, and the complex history of the people and businesses thriving in New York at that time, certainly unfolded within that form; however, as Gans argues, similar working-class dynamics generated lively suburban communities in that era. Social and economic conditions are as much—if not more—a product of time and human history as they are artifacts of spatial configurations.Indeed, the rise of the cell phone and personal computer (personal digital device, etc.) also cuts down on geographic commonality.
On the other hand, cyberspace, notably in the form of neighborhood blogs, has enabled new connections.
Did Jacobs really generalize from Greenwich Village? Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, commenting in 2006, called that a misreading:
Jane Jacobs is the great prophet of the Village and the way of making cities that it symbolizes, but she did not believe that every place needed to be like a little Greenwich Village. That is the great misreading of her, the mistaken view that her way of seeing the world was so narrow that she wanted to turn everything into the Village. Actually, what she believed is that every place has an essence, a particular quality that we can figure out by looking at it – and that cities are living things, not inert objects.What's community?
Co-editor Mennel, senior editor and acquisitions manager for Planners Press, in "Jane Jacobs, Andy Warhol, and the Kind of Problem a Community Is" (also published in Places), observes that, not only was Jacobs a product of her time, her time contained some very different models.
As has been noted often, Jacobs’s work is characterized by belief in a certain kind of community—one with clearly defined roles, a mix of classes, and a constancy of activity in the streets and of people watching that activity. This kind of “warm” community is depicted as lively and engaged, with positive social benefits arising from the free association of people who have different functions and beliefs but who all exist within a circumscribed social environment called the neighborhood.Andy Warhol, however, created a counter-culture environment, while "Jacobs failed to see the value of impersonality in the city." Mennel suggests:
...It does not diminish the value of the kind of social environment Jacobs favored to point out first that it posits a healthy neighborhood as a kind of panopticon, with a decided lack of privacy and anonymity. More important, however, is that this conception of neighborhood seems to write out significant portions of actual urban experience. Where, in these idealized neighborhoods, do sad and angry men hover in bars and get into fights? Where are the lonely, the unhappy, and the unwell? And where are those who reject social conformity, who choose to be defined not by their jobs but by something else, such as personality or infirmity? Where are all the people on the margins—criminals, artists, or a combination thereof? Where are the dropouts, the beatniks, the inept, the clueless, and the lost? Jane Jacobs dreamed a society, but it was a society of a certain kind of conservative cast, based on function and ultimately order. It was a society of productive, social, mutually supporting individuals. It was a society comprised in large measure of well-adjusted libertarians who all had places in the dominant economic framework and who would unite to pursue common self-interest—specifically, the preservation and continuation of their shared social environment, their neighborhood. It was a society without an internal life beyond Jacobs’s own delight in it.
The greater irony here is that Jacobs made her greatest impact on planning by weaning planners off the idea that they held some special key to understanding humans, their behavior, and their environments. And yet it is easy to feel as if she ultimately exchanged one ideal for another, neglecting social and economic complexity in favor of a sentimental picture of urban community.Mennel thinks the real flaw in Jacobs's work--and those who interpret it--is not the effort to recreate a small-town atmosphere in a big-city community, but "her hope for a natural instinct toward cooperation and socially sustaining behavior."
One commenter in Places, Nick Kaufmann, responded:
Jacobs was championing diversity, not togetherness in cities.Mennel responded:
She was not promoting the benefits of being a member of a tight-knit urban community to all, but rather explaining the benefits that those communities give to YOU, the anonymous resident, misfit, artistic iconoclast or passerby. Whether it's safety, eyes on the street (they don't have to be yours!), local flavor, people to sit on committees so you don't have to, not to mention the economic benefits that tight-knit ethnic or class-based communities bestow on the city as a whole with their niche industries.
This kind of urban rootedness, your "warm community", actually creates very fertile soil for "cold" communities like Warhol's, precisely because it ALLOWS him and his cohorts to be disengaged from the "issues mentalities and prejudices" (read 'the concerns of everyday life').
I do think, though, that there's a difference between celebrating diversity--which Jacobs plainly did--and accepting the possibility that some of the elements that make up that diversity may not value that particular conception of diversity. I don't question that Jacobs valued artists; she treats them, however, like an aesthetic amenity--they're welcome and valuable because they add texture and flavor to her kind of city life. That's not the same thing as recognizing a genuinely different worldviewAt that March 31 MCNY panel, David Freeland, author of Automats, Taxi Dances, Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan's Lost Places of Leisure (New York University Press, 2009), invoked Jacobs as a response to "this deepening anxiety, the feeling that this precious city of ours is slipping out of our hands."
And while he didn't respond directly to Mennel, Freeland suggested that the arts, which depends on the life of the street, are Jacobsian.
At the panel, moderator Page observed that today's New York is very different from the city in Jacobs's day, which was "much more middle class." Sure, there was abject poverty and discrimination, but now there's "a much starker differentiation" between rich and poor.
Mennel notes that, for cooperation, a shared sense of purpose is needed, but such "shared purposes tend to arise only among communities of like-minded individuals." In other words, look to religious groups, or fellow homeowners in a block association.
It's dismaying, however, that there seems to be no model for new communities to form, such as Brooklyn Cohousing, which last year ran aground in the real estate market.
The impact on planning
In the book's capstone essay (excerpted in Places), Thomas J. Campanella takes on "Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning," suggesting that, for the profession (this is a book published by the American Planning Association), Jacobs had some deleterious impacts.
He writes (all italics in original):
This brings us to the first of the three legacies of the Jacobsian turn: It diminished the disciplinary identity of the planning profession. While the expanded range of planning scholarship and practice in the post–urban renewal era diversified the field, that diversification came at the expense of an established area of expertise—strong, centralized physical planning—that gave the profession visibility and identity both within academia and among sibling “place” professions such as architecture and landscape architecture... Like a well-meaning surgeon who botches an operation, planners were (correctly) blamed for the excesses of urban renewal and many other problems then facing American cities. But the planning baby was thrown out with the urban-renewal bathwater. And once the traditional focus of physical planning was lost, the profession was effectively without a keel.... By forgoing its traditional focus and expanding too quickly, planning became a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And so it remains.He questions the frequent lip service toward community input:
The second legacy of the Jacobsian revolution is closely related to the first: Privileging the grassroots over plannerly authority and expertise meant a loss of professional agency. In rejecting the muscular interventionism of the Burnham-Moses sort, planners in the 1960s identified instead with the victims of urban renewal and highway schemes. New mechanisms were devised to empower ordinary citizens and the grassroots to shape and guide the planning process. This was an extraordinary act of altruism on our part, and I can think of no other profession that has done anything quite like it... Granted, powering up the grassroots was necessary in the 1970s to stop expressway and renewal schemes that had truly run amok. But it was power that could not easily be switched off. Tools and processes introduced to ensure popular participation ended up reducing the planner’s role to that of umpire or schoolyard monitor. Instead of setting the terms of debate or charting a course of action, planners now seemed wholly content to be facilitators—“mere absorbers of public opinion,” as Alex Krieger put it, “waiting for consensus to build.”I'm not sure that's true across the board--consider that New York City's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP) allows for advisory opinions from local Community Boards, and the Empire State Development Corporation's process, as with Atlantic Yards, offers form without substance.
The role of community
Campanella's right that we shouldn't idealize community voices:
The fatal flaw of such populism is that no single group of local citizens—mainstream or marginalized, affluent or impoverished—can be trusted to have the best interests of society or the environment in mind when they evaluate a planning proposal. The literature on grassroots planning tends to assume a citizenry of Gandhian humanists. In fact, most people are not motivated by altruism or yearning for a better world but by self-interest, pure and simple. Preservation and enhancement of that self-interest—which usually orbits about the axes of rising crime rates and falling property values—are the real drivers of community activism. This is why it is a fool’s errand to rely upon citizens to guide the planning process.He does allow that "activism of the NIMBY sort" and "citizen self-interest" can do good.
Forget for a moment that most folks lack the knowledge and expertise to make intelligent decisions about the future of our cities. Most people are too busy, too apathetic, or too focused on their jobs or kids to be moved to action over planning issues unless those issues are at their doorstep. And once an issue is at the doorstep, fear sets in and reason and rationality fly out the window. So the very citizens least able to make objective decisions about planning action are the ones who end up dominating the planning process, often wielding near-veto power over proposals.
He points to the bigger picture:
All planning may be local, but the sum of the local is national and eventually global. If we put parochial local interests ahead of broader societal needs, it will be impossible to build the infrastructure essential to the economic viability of the United States in the long haul—the commuter and high-speed rail lines; the dense, walkable, public-transit-focused communities; the solar and wind farms and geothermal plants; perhaps even the nuclear power stations.I wouldn't disagree, but, at least in New York, the legacy of Jacobs is more invocation by developers than community planning. In other words, Campanella seems to be downplaying the willingness of government, and government-based planners, to cede planning to the private sector.
The politics of planning
As Coco J. Harris wrote in response to the Places piece:
This otherwise insightful piece skips the politics of planning. Who funds practice of those "core competencies related to placemaking, infrastructure and the physical environment?" Who pays planners to plan?Another, Greg, commented:
Publicly-funded planning in the post-Reagan era was largely subjugated to the construction industry and corporate development interests who dominate local government. To place responsibility for the profession's decline on "self-inflicted loss of agency and authority" ignores this context.
I earned a masters degree in planning from one of the more prominent programs, and I'm still not sure what planning is. In New York City, few people I worked with went on to work for the DCP - most went to the EDC, DOT, for BIDs, and various other things, none of which really require a background in "planning" specifically. And the DCP seems to exist primary to capitulate to whatever the powerful real estate lobby wants.Indeed, the Department of City Planning did more to ease than challenge the Atlantic Yards plan with its comments.
A response to Campanella
At the March 31 MCNY panel, Mary Rowe, Urban Fellow, Municipal Art Society, scoffed at some of Campanella's conclusions. "What is it about the planning profession that makes them so vulnerable?" she asked rhetorically "Methinks he does protest too much."
"I think Jane Jacobs was basically saying, it's not about credentials, it's not about control, it's about observation, practicality," she said. According to her remarks:
The debates, however necessary in a process of moving forward, distract from the ambitious rigor of her writing, where she not only reports her own observations, but challenges readers to participate with her. Jacobs was not predictable in her views while she was alive – her inquiries were so diverse and varied, it was a fool’s errand to presume her opinion on much. What one could be surer of was the degree to which her analysis was based on keen observation and diligence in pursuing the larger patterns of connections.... In her introduction to the New Modern Library edition of Death and Life, Jacobs suggested her field of inquiry was one of ‘urban ecology’: how a city’s built form, economics and ethics interact, and together feed a city’s vitality and thriving.Indeed, one of the legacies of Jacobs, as Goldberger has suggested, is "a model for skepticism."
The need for grand plans
The third legacy of the Jacobsian turn is perhaps most troubling of all: the seeming paucity among American planners today of the speculative courage and vision that once distinguished this profession.After all, there are some huge tasks ahead:
Planning students today need a more robust suite of skills and expertise than we are currently providing—and than may even be possible in the framework of the two-year graduate curriculum. Planners today need not a close-up lens or a wide-angle lens but a wide-angle zoom lens. They need to be able to see the big picture as well as the parts close up; and even if they are not trained to design the parts themselves, they need to know how all those parts fit together.
Planning in America has its work cut out for it as never before: It must take the lead in changing our patterns of settlement on the land, building the necessary infrastructure to end our catastrophic addiction to cheap oil, and working toward a more sustainable urban future. We need to literally come together in space, retrofit suburbia and create dense walkable communities, and build “a country of cities.” We need to restore the vast railroads that scored this country a century ago and commit far more federal funding toward rebuilding our bridges and tunnels, our water and sewer infrastructure, our electrical grids. We have coasted for decades on infrastructure built generations ago. That infrastructure served admirably, but it is aging and beginning to fail. How well we respond to these signal challenges will determine whether we are indeed a relevant and important profession or a truly minor one.That includes "new cities built from scratch" and "the most extensive national high-speed rail network on the planet." Should trains in the United States reach Chinese speed, travel between Boston and New York, or New York and Washington, would take just over an hour:
The whole matter of planning, infrastructure, and the fate of nations has come into high relief in recent years with the rise of China. Le Corbusier famously observed that to send a young architect to Rome was to ruin him for life. American planners who travel to China risk coming back equally ruined, for they learn that their Chinese cousins have effectively charted the most spectacular period of urban growth and transformation in world history. They are then beset with an affliction far worse than the “Robert Moses envy” suffered, usually in silence, by an earlier generation of American planners. Here now is a nation that makes even Moses look small. Name any category of infrastructure and China has likely built more of it in the last 30 years, and bigger and faster, than any other nation on Earth—probably than all other nations combined. Long the poor man of Asia, China is now beating us at a game we once mastered—the game of building, and building big; the game of getting things done.
And where the United States has earmarked all of $8 billion for high-speed rail, China has allocated $300 billion for phase one alone.He blames a right-wing reliance on "private enterprise and personal liberty at all costs" and a left-wing "welfare-state culture that has created a generation of Americans expecting handouts like spoiled children."
And, I'd add, leaders unwilling to challenge an essentially suburban culture.
With China, a few caveats
Campanella, like others extolling China, acknowledges some trade-offs:
Of course, there are immense equity and justice and environmental issues with the way cities are built and rebuilt in China; we all know that. People are shunted around like so many scared sheep, evicted with only a few weeks’ notice. Those who protest are silenced quickly, often violently. I am not advocating the sort of ruthless authoritarian approach to urban growth and renewal that China favors. But just as China needs more of the American-style gavel of justice, equity, and democratic process, we in the United States need more of that very effective Chinese sledgehammer. And this will require something that makes many people nervous: ridding the development process of some of the many trammels and fetters that came in the wake of the Jacobsian grassroots revolution. For example, community consent is usually an asset to smart planning, but it must be regulated to prevent populist opposition to projects that promise clear benefits to a majority of citizens beyond the local scene.His example: the "Cape Wind" project in Cape Cod, MA, where well-off residents opposed a wind farm.
Fair enough, but don't we also need procedures to regulate sweetheart deals?
Another invocation of China
In "A Chinese Perspective," planner Nathan Cherry follows up:
Although using community activism to stop ill-advised planning projects from moving forward is a legitimate goal, we must also recognize the time and places in which we live. At the time of writing, polls indicate that only 21 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing. This was not always the case, and it certainly is not the case currently in China. Because they have seen significant improvement in their quality of life in the past few generations, the Chinese mostly trust government in matters not related to freedom of speech.I think he's somewhat Pollyannish--there's no small resistance, and repression, in China--but it's clear that the balance is far different there.
He notes that projects he's worked on in China have sped ahead:
Needless to say, such unanimity and speed are practically unheard of today anywhere in North America. In China, these can be attributed equally to the people’s acceptance of change in pursuit of a better quality of life, significant individual compensation, and, yes, a bit of government-imposed fear as well.He concludes:
Outsiders often point to the lack of public dialogue in China as a lack of human rights. While there is truth to this, it is also true that many Chinese retain a sincere optimism and trust in their public systems as stewards of the future, which Westerners rarely have anymore. The community activism that was so effective in stopping Robert Moses’s more extreme plans was more a reflection of revealing his reckless ambition than it was a proper appreciation of the ability of planning to effect change for the greater good. Planning considerations such as environmental stewardship, job creation, social equity, adequate infrastructure, and high-quality public services are still significant challenges of our era. The soaring accomplishments of the planning profession (such as the Plan of Chicago, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, the Beijing Olympics, and Malmö, Sweden) show that big thinking is often essential to bring about fundamental change for the better in our modern cities. If she came to China with me and saw these projects I described, in all their complexity, I am sure Jane Jacobs would understand that the good in large-scale planning is not necessarily outweighed by the bad. And, if she is credited with spurring the movement that led to greater citizen participation in development and planning decisions, is it legitimate for us to wonder if we have, in the process, unintentionally yet fundamentally weakened our ability to do grandly ambitious projects in North America?I don't disagree. But if the public sector is going to lead, it has to not let developers drive projects, either.
The lessons of empiricism
Another Places commenter, John Kaliski, responded to Campanella:
For me, one of the great lesson of Jane Jacobs was to insist upon ground up empirical planning processes and procedures as a means of realizing urban experiences, functions, and aesthetics. While NIMBYISM, as Campanella points out, is one manifestation of this, it can not be blamed on Jacobs who was hardly a NIMBY in theory or practice. At the same time, North America is now replete with interesting urbanisms that never would have emerged if Jane Jacobs had not written what she wrote.The Gratz critique
In a mixed review of the collection published 4/25/11 on Planetizen, Planners and the Jane Jacobs Conundrum, urbanist and author Roberta Brandes Gratz takes on the defensiveness implied in some pieces:
Too many planners think that Death and Life was about planning, about them. Although Jacobs opened that book with "This is an attack on current city planning and rebuilding," that seminal work is really about understanding how cities work, the importance of observing the city on the ground, and recognizing how everything is connected, always changing, always organic and much too fluid to be readily reflected in a Plan.Her main criticism is of Campanella, and she uses an anecdote Campanella himself offers, how a group of citizens, most with no professional training, came up with a good idea for a train station in their town.
Her essay prompted a response from Campanella, who first notes--as has been evident in New York since 2007--that people also read Robert Moses selectively, as both destroyer of neighborhoods and builder of crucial infrastructure. He adds:
I used the story to demonstrate a point: that planners have so lost their knack for visionary leadership that it took a group of ordinary citizens to initiate the steps leading to an official town plan. Perhaps I should have emphasized that such outcomes are rare, or mentioned the vocal "not in my backyard" opposition to the same project that came from another corner of the grassroots (at one meeting someone shouted "they want to turn Mayberry into Manhattan"—"they" being the pro-station citizens, not some tin-horn Robert Moses in the county office building). And as I tried to point out elsewhere in the chapter, for every citizen-led action that yields a Hillsborough Station, there are a dozen of the reactionary NIMBY sort. Roberta makes no mention of the other examples I cited in the piece—the cancelled infill projects, the homeless homeless shelter, the affordable housing complex that so enraged its otherwise progressive neighbors you'd think Habitat for Humanity had proposed a release of plague-infested rats.He concludes:
We need to chart our way out of the quicksand of fossil-fuel dependency; rethink our unsustainable settlement patterns; develop alternative sources of energy; rebuild our transportation infrastructure, and create the rail systems and bikeway networks essential to a greener and more healthful future. These are matters of urgent national economic survival, and will require sustained government action on the scale of a New Deal or Marshall Plan. Can citizens initiate good plans—yes, of course; and they should. I helped lead just such an effort in Hillsborough—as a citizen first and planning educator second. Should we wait around for this to happen? We don’t have the luxury. There is a time and place for meetings at the community center, for flipcharts and Post-It trees with bright ideas for the local park. This is not it. We need the vision and leadership of the planning profession now more than ever; and if that means deepening the "reputation for arrogance" that Roberta accuses planners of (we must hang out with very different crowds!) then so be it. Securing the future is well worth a few bruised egos.Securing that future is worth a debate. But the role of developers can't be discounted.
Also see Stephen Wickens' column in the 5/6/11 Toronto Globe and Mail, headlined Jane Jacobs: Honoured in the breach, which offers some criticism, such as:
Canadian-raised architect and author Witold Rybczynski, who wrote about Ms. Jacobs in last year's Makeshift Metropolis, complains that she had gaping holes in her historical knowledge, overestimated planners' influence and underestimated suburbia's lure: “Not everyone wants 24-hour street life and, unlike Greenwich Village, most working-class districts are depressing. It's no surprise people would want to get away from that.”Wickens points to Jacobs's "buried thesis" in Death and Life:
Still, he calls The Death and Life “the dominant book about planning of the second half of the 20th century, perhaps of the entire century.”
But page 150, my mention of which set off Ms. Jacobs's cough, lists four conditions for any part of a city to generate “exuberant diversity”: that districts have a mix of primary uses; that most blocks be short; that buildings be of various ages; and that the area have sufficient density. It was indispensable that these areas accommodate various levels of income and commercial rents.
But simply to list the factors without the examples and complicated dynamics found in the book is almost to miss the point.
“If you've read to the last chapter,” she told me, “you know cities – their parks, transportation planning, development policy, density ratios … are, like the life sciences, problems of organized complexity. It's no good wishing it were any other way.”