Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Why does Jane Jacobs matter?

Probably most people don't know much about Jane Jacobs (on left in photo), but she is very important for New Urbanists, an influential group in DC and elsewhere. For example, the Greater Greater Washington blog seems to follow New Urbanism and a certain interpretation of Jane Jacobs' work.

Like many groups, New Urbanists reject the urban renewal represented by Robert Moses (on right in photo). After the Second World War, Robert Moses came to represent the archetypical powerful urban planner, who bulldozed the past and recreated the city (and the suburb) for the car by building new bridges, public housing projects, and highways. By the 1950s, communities resisted this "urban renewal" through demolition. In 1955, the Capitol Hill Restoration Society began its fight against plans to destroy row houses to make way for highways, large government office buildings, etc. Jane Jacobs represented this kind of resistance and the desire to create real, authentic community in opposition to faceless development. The New Urbanists have rejected Robert Moses' corporate/government city and have embraced Jane Jacobs' urban village.

However, in her Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, Brooklyn College sociologist Sharon Zukin has shown that the dichotomy of Moses vs. Jacobs no longer applies. Now, developers and government officials fuse Moses' corporate/government city with Jacob's urban village. Development is now a new kind of urban renewal with a human face.

An example of this fusion is the HOPE-VI-funded transformation of Arthur Capper public housing into Capitol Quarter (see my previous post). As with the old urban renewal, HOPE VI removed the buildings and the people and sought to create a completely new community on an assumed blank slate. However, in contrast to the old urban renewal, under the influence of Jane Jacobs, a more varied architecture was introduced (row houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, etc) and more varied incomes were introduced. A firm was even brought in as "architects of community," to socially engineer community.

While Jacobs supported diverse and dense neighborhoods, she would have rejected such eradication of existing communities, introduction of buildings built all at the same time, planned communities, and the potential for, in her words, the "Great Blight of Dullness." She might have been relieved by the street life some blocks away. Capper Carrollsburg had lively street life, which Jane Jacobs would have likely suggested that planners build on, rather than destroy. So, New Urbanists may have made Jacobs the new planning orthodoxy, but I don't think that Jacobs would have wanted to be part of that orthodoxy and would have seen it as window dressing on the urban renewal she rejected. Jane Jacobs matters because urban planners and especially New Urbanists have used certain interpretations of her ideas.


  1. I think you can take that in another direction as well, Jacobs and Moses represented two fundamentally different ways of accomplishing urban planning goals. Moses thought the best way to help the common citizen was by giving them access to the outside by means of the automobile and parkway. As this went on, Jacobs realized that this line of thinking would cause issues. She noticed that as urban areas were rebuilt to make way for cars and the implementation of Modernism, causing loss of communities and social resources for residents, especially poorer ones. They both wanted to help people, but Moses did it in a way which eventually caused more harm than good. Moses wanted to make new assets, and Jacobs thought that what was already existing should be strengthened and possibly re-purposed. To this extent, I see no reason why programs such as Hope IV (or even Section 8) can't be implemented in some neighborhoods without displacing existing residents or disrupting existing social networks. You might need a little bit of new construction (which Jacobs advocated for, to create economic diversity), or optimally, renovation of abandoned buildings, but I don't think these programs should be seen as ineffective based on the way they're implemented. I think urban planning is at the point where we not only have a variety of tools in the tool box but a variety of ways to use them, and brute force isn't the only option in a lot of cases.

  2. Thank you, Bryan, for writing! I am finally back to my blog. Yes, I agree with you that Jacobs and Moses represent two fundamentally different approaches. HOPE VI could have been faithful to Jacobs' ideas, but each time it has been realized it has displaced existing residents and created completely new construction. The HOPE VI project at Arthur Capper would not have made Jacobs happy. So, the question is why did HOPE VI always undermine Jacobs' vision? Several possible answers: 1) people planning HOPE VI did not want to retain the community at Arthur Capper, or 2) the land on which Arthur Capper sat was too valuable to keep as public housing or mostly low-income, or 3) ??

  3. I think the third option might be due to the polar opposite results achieved by Moving to Opportunity and the Gautreaux Project in Chicago. From what I understand, Gautreaux was a success primarily because it relocated a few families slowly and individually. Moving to Opportunity relocated entire sections of impoverished neighborhoods to higher-income communities, often transplanting neighborhood dynamics with it. One thing that I think is interesting about these two programs (and about mixed income neighborhoods in general) is that they often rely on moving poor people into higher income neighborhoods, and not the other way around. As far as I know, there hasn't been an attempt at creating a mixed income community through limited gentrification, and incorporating higher income residents into existing social networks of the neighborhood, where they might be seen as resources.


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