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Jane Jacobs, the Enduring “Anti-Planner”

Mainstream city planning has known its share of eloquent critics over the years (including, if we may be so bold, yours truly). But perhaps none has been as consequential as Jane Jacobs. Her groundbreaking 1961 treatise Death and Life of Great American Cities announces at the outset its intent to attack current planning and redevelopment practice and then makes good on its promise, going after planning principles once regarded as unassailable. Others made similar critiques at the time; but Jacobs made them in a way that captured the public’s imagination. So much so that, even today, her work remains a common point of reference in scholarship and public debate about the planning of cities, and her arguments are often marshaled in support of even contradictory propositions. Her influence, then, is inarguable. The enduring prominence of her work, however, does not settle questions about its relevance today. Jacobs, after all, based her observation on a very different city than contemporary New York, and she was responding to a planning orthodoxy that has long since been abandoned. To consider the question of Jacobs’ current applicability, we held a panel discussion, featuring three preeminent urban scholars. Before discussing their assessment, however, it is important to understand the context that gave rise to Jacobs’ work and the basis of her critique.

The mid-twentieth century was a period of economic and cultural ascendancy in New York City. It would have surprised observers at the time to know that the city was about to undergo a period of decades-long decline that would culminate in a full fledged urban crisis. Long building trends started to direct investment away from the city and, with it, residents with the means to follow. This led to explosive development in the urban periphery and to growing disinvestment and blight in the city center. Along the way, however, the city planning apparatus tried to arrest this urban spiral of fiscal and demographic decline. In doing so, it changed the face of the city and threatened to overhaul many of the historic neighborhoods that remained standing.

(a Webinar featuring: Susan Fainstein, Senior Research Fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Design; Christine Boyer, Professor of Architecture and Urbanism at the Princeton University School of Architecture; and Sharon Zukin, Professor Emerita of Sociology at Brooklyn College and at the CUNY Graduate Center)

The mid-twentieth century marked the height of the planning profession’s influence over urban redevelopment policy. Though only a few decades old, city planning already regarded itself as a scientific enterprise with an abiding faith in abstract principles, technology, and progress. The era’s planning expertise, however, had been deeply influenced, on the one hand, by past efforts to address the overcrowding and noxious uses of the industrial city and, on the other, by prominent utopian planning visions that addressed these concerns through the segregation of land uses, the introduction open space, and the simplification of the urban form. These influences determined the shape and course of urban redevelopment efforts when federal funding provided the means to raze and rebuild large portions of the city. Urban renewal programs resulted in the clearing of small scale neighborhoods understood to be messy, crowded, and economically and socially marginal, and in their replacement with series of identical exclusively residential towers regularly arranged amidst a sea of open space within consolidated mega-blocks.

NYCHA projects

Eventually, these projects inspired backlash from activists such as Jane Jacobs. Her voice joined a small but growing chorus of critics who decried the dehumanizing scale and sensorial monotony of urban renewal towers and who, by way of contrast, shone a favorable light on the liveliness of traditional urban neighborhoods, not unlike the one where Jacobs herself lived: Greenwich Village.

West Village, Manhattan

Jacobs blamed the city’s decline on a planning approach that ignored the incompatibilities between the formal organization that it tried to impose from above and the “inherent” functional order of the actual city as it is experienced from below. She derived her ideas about the city’s functional order using the street block as her unit of analysis and famously illustrated them through a decontextualized but evocative description of the vivid ritual of harmonious social interaction that unfolded outside her very own window, which looked onto Hudson Street. According to Jacobs, this sidewalk ballet of community depended on several conditions: a diversity of land uses; small street blocks, which facilitate a lively street life; a diversity of buildings, including older, affordable ones; and a density of diverse people who can support a wide range of uses and amenities. Several factors, however, can undermine these qualities, gentrification, physical barriers (e.g., highways), and either a lack or overabundance of financing available for development (what she called cataclysmic money). To address these problems, Jacobs proposes a series of policy solutions that include a housing subsidy program, the introduction of mixed uses in monofunctional districts, and regulatory restrictions on new development, so as to ensure that change doesn’t overwhelm the various forms of diversity that have organically arisen in the neighborhood.

Today, much of the planning profession and many beyond it have accepted Jacobs’ assessment of urban virtues. And yet, notwithstanding the assimilation of many of her arguments,  neighborhood after neighborhood keeps drifting away from Jacobs’ vision of lively streetlife and diversity. This raises the question of whether Jacobs’ work can still offer guidance (if it ever did) in the pursuit of the neighborhood ideal that she formulated. In tackling this question, our three panelists offered stimulating analysis of the development that has transpired in three of our neighborhoods. Christine Boyer, a decades-long resident of the Far West Village, offered a fascinating overview of the history of that neighborhood, covering some of Jacobs’ own activist battles and then, in discussing a series of more recent ad hoc development plans, some our own, such as the Hudson River Park air rights transfer proposal, 388 Hudson Street, and City of Yes. She argues that the absence of a comprehensive physical plan for the neighborhood — the sort of intervention that Jacobs would have repudiated — has allowed a super-charged development market to shape the area according to its priorities. Susan Fainstein then looked at Greenwich Village more broadly through the years to contend that, despite Jacobs claims to the contrary, the built form and land use heterogeneity have little influence on demographic diversity. Lastly, Zukin looked at the history of her own neighborhood of SoHo, from its near destruction and revival to its recent rezoning, to demonstrate the limitations of prevailing planning tools for achieving the humane city that Jacobs envisioned.

The event’s presentations were followed by a discussion of two of the tensions at the root of Jacobs’ polemic. First, the panelists addressed the need to square Jacobs’ aversion to centralized planning — which might have made eminent sense then, given the excesses of urban renewal at the time — with the lack of alternative mechanisms for constraining the development and gentrifying pressures that can undermine a neighborhood’s diversity and vitality.

The Highline

These forces have greatly intensified since Jacobs’ time, as neighborhoods have become the object of investment and consumer interest at a global scale. The panelists then addressed the question of whether Jacobs’ neighborhood ideal — the white ethnic, slowly gentrifying Greenwich Village of the 1950s — provides an apt model across all demographic groups and especially whether it does today, when our social and economic lives unfold across a vastly larger scale than they did at the time. 

In the end, the panel only scratched the surface of the planning and redevelopment questions that Jacobs’ work raises. And it is only a testament to the acuity of Jacob’s observations and to the evocativeness of her vision for the city that her arguments continue to inspire the sort of spirited discussion to which our panelists treated us.

You can check out the panel discussion here.

We also invite you to watch this incisive panel in full here and to send us comments, questions, and suggestions for future panels at info@villagepreservation.org.

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