Sunday, November 13, 2011

Blog Post No. 2011-18: Anthony Flint fairly accurately summarizes the dilemma that is Jane Jacobs...

...and a challenge for us all

And so, the Jane Jacobs debate continues half a century on. And Anthony Flint makes a point in yesterday's Globe that reveals the running battle over her intellectual and practical legacy that looks more and more like the fight over the remains of a medieval saint than a 20th century author and activist. Your devoted RTUF correspondent has blogged here in the past about the planning and design professions' difficulty in deciding what her impact on the urban scene really was and whether it was good or bad. [For example: the post earlier this year on Frank Gruber's analysis.]

Anthony's latest piece - An urban legacy in need of renewal - brings the debate down to the level of the urban street, where the weapons of extreme skepticism and public involvement that Jacobs used to stop the disastrous, nested policies of urban renewal, "Get Things Done" Robert Moses-ism, untrammeled freeway expansion, and automobile-oriented "urban" planning have been turned, in a kind of twisted irony, on projects such as thoughtful infill developjment designed to advance the urban condition in ways that Jacobs would almost certainly favor. Thus, as Anthony notes, we have been recently treated to the depressing spectacle of women donning Jacobs wigs and glasses to oppose good urban infill in Brooklyn (and your correspondent's birthplace, to boot). Anthony is correct to observe that Jacobs' fundamentally anti-planning approach accordingly lives on, even when the profession is earnestly trying to do the right thing. It is undeniably distressing.

All of that said, I don't think for a second that we need more of the Moses way of doing things to balance out the universe. Being from a city so intimately shaped by the man that you literally can't go more than a couple of miles in any direction before coming across something he built or, more often, destroyed, I can emphatically state that unilateral, bureaucratic planning is best left dead and buried in this country. The real project is to help our fellow citizens be discerning observers and actors in both public and private development efforts. Given how awfully the built environment was treated in this country for more than half a century, it should surprise no one that there is virtually no faith that the next project is going to make things better. The first few rounds of this discussion will feel like a monologue. All we can hope is that eventually the message gets through and we demonstrate, through improved urban fabric, that there really is hope for something better.

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