Skip to main content

Featured Post

Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park graphic: what's built/what's coming + FAQ (pinned post)

A panel on the legacy of Jane Jacobs. Do we have "more democracy than people are comfortable with"?

My free Jane's Walk on Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park/Barclays Center is Friday, May 4, at 5:30 pm. See information here.

The annual Jane's Walk weekend sent me back to a 3/16/17 panel at the Brooklyn Historical Society on the Legacy of Jane Jacobs, on YouTube below. The summary:
In 1960, Jane Jacobs' book "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" sent shockwaves through the architecture and planning worlds. New York Times columnist Ginia Bellafante talks to Matt Tyrnauer, director and producer of the acclaimed documentary "Citizen Jane: Battle for the City," Rober Hammond, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Friends of the High Line, and Dr. Samuel Zipp, Associate Professor of American and Urban Studies at Brown University and Co-Editor of "Vital Little Plans: The Short Works of Jane Jacobs," about Jacobs' extraordinary impact on the urban landscape.
Starting off talking about Brownstone Brooklyn--today expensive, beautiful, low-rise, and intimate, in Bellafante's words--the moderator offered "a kind of devil's advocate question. As we deify Jacobs, is it really, in this moment of housing crisis... is it morally justifiable to really still celebrate her, and would she actually have been committed to some of the things she was committed to, in this environment?"

Bellafante noted that, when Jacobs was writing about the dangers of urban renewal and to-down plans, people were fleeing cities. Indeed, the situation is enormously different, and one savvy commenter, architectural critic Paul Goldberger, has previously suggested, "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 common sense, rather than the common wisdom."

Panelist Zipp responded cautiously: "I think it's legitimate to think about the problem of Jane Jacobs as an urban icon in a period when cities are becoming more prosperous...But what have today is something she did identify... which is inequality in cities, just in different patterns. So it's important to think about Jacobs as someone who did think about inequality in cities, just not in all the ways that we might think about it today."

Zipp suggested that, rather than look for prescriptions regarding the built environment and mixed-use density, we should think about Jacobs--especially in her later books--as a supporter of economic diversity, which would foster social diversity.

Too much democracy?

At 44:44, Bellafante observed, "Even in New York, we have some would argue, more democracy than people are comfortable with. Because you have--you can't just build a high rise where a developer or the mayor wants to. You have Community Boards who--communities have a huge say, which is of course a Jacobs legacy... There's this constant tension, because you have--nobody wants their own real estate value to go down with more high rises. But we're not going to solve the problem of housing people without building up in a city like this."

"There just isn't land," she continued. "Unless you're going to just say, well, poor people and wealthier shouldn't live together. We'll just put everyone in Eastern Queens, where there are no subways, there's plenty of land there, and do that. Who wants to live in that city? I don't."

One audience member, the filmmaker Isabel Hill, countered that, while it looks like communities have a say, sometimes they don't. The city's use of 197-a plans, "is kind of a sham," she said, noting that the community-driven plan in Greenpoint and Williamsburg was rejected for a mayor's rezoning.

As noted in 2007, the city's Uniform Land Use Review Procedure (ULURP), while seen as superior to the state review process used for Atlantic Yards, has its flaws; Municipal Art Society then-President Kent Barwick proposed a whole new process, calling ULURP "a complete sham."

Jacobs = NIMBY?

A little later, filmmaker Tyrnauer suggested people can take lessons from Jacobs as a strategist. "A lot of people misinterpret Jane as the goddess of NIMBY, and I'm not sure she necessarily was that."

Zipp said, "I'm a little bit worried about commenting on current situations... Jacobs was fiercely dedicated to saying no, no, no, all the time. That's why we think of her as a NIMBY. That was her strategy... never give anything away... In her back pocket, especially in the West Village, they always had another plan, an alternative housing plan. It got built eventually, the West Village Houses, a sort of middle-income way to do some infill housing for mixed-income folks, which is a modest success."

"In a way, what we have is a strange and odd legacy of Jacobs's time," Zipp continued. "Which is that we've preserved  ... her commitment to saying, no, no, no... which we seem to need... because we've also preserved the structure of incentives laid out in the urban renewal era, which incentivizes certain forms of private development... what we needed is what she was really asking for, which was incentivizing forms of development from the bottom up, and not giving incentives just simply to private developers with a lot of money... to give communities an ability to try to be more than reactive, to be proactive."

"Now the problem with that, in that era, it was an era of suburbanization and most people with money wanted to leave the city," he said. "Now that people with money want to be in cities... they want to protect those property values. So you have a kind of opposite problem.  You need to find a way to incentivize it, so people with money will find ways to believe in the virtues that Jane Jacobs practiced and preached, which was people living together in diverse and dense communities."

I think it's no dichotomy but a difference in degree. After all, opponents of Atlantic Yards did not support stasis, but a smaller, but still significant Unity Plan. Opponents of the 80 Flatbush project do not, as a Crain's newsletter suggests today--linking to an op-ed calling it "smart growth"--want "to keep the block low-scale." Rather, they oppose the near-tripling of the density while accepting a 400-foot tower.