By David Halle
Though not its avowed intention, the Municipal Arts Society’s terrific Jane Jacobs exhibition offers material for a long overdue re-evaluation of the famous urban scholar. While her sky-high reputation amongst most people who care about cities is in no need of revision, the exhibit affords one a chance to grasp exactly what she stood for and did, and in the process determine who is really entitled to claim her mantle in today’s New York City.
The answers may surprise. For example, her 1961 magnum opus “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is not opposed to very tall buildings, new buildings, or modern architecture and materials like glass. Jacobs just insists that a healthy neighborhood should also have a good proportion of small, old buildings. Nor, for the same reason, does her book support “contextualism,” the principle, beloved by historic preservationists, that new buildings must fit with existing ones. Above all, a Jacobs re-evaluation engages the debate between planning and urban democracy, crystallized in today’s New York City by the search for the proper balance in the planning process between “the community,” represented by Community Boards, and the Department of City Planning.
“Jane Jacobs and the Future of New York” is a wonderful exhibition imaginative and full of stimulating examples from present-day New York. The show stresses that what “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” values about cities is diversity, density and dynamism in effect their ability to crowd people and activities into a joyous jumble. The strength of cities is that their populations are large enough to support considerable variety, including large supermarkets (the “box stores” of her day, to which Jacobs has no objection) delicatessens, standard and specialized movie theaters, new tall buildings (as tall as current technology allows, built from contemporary materials) and old, small ones. But cities do not automatically generate diversity.
Four conditions, Jacobs argues, are indispensable for exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts. First, mixed primary uses. A city’s internal parts (basically its neighborhoods) must serve more than one primary function, and ensure that people go outdoors on different schedules. Second, most blocks must be short, with frequent opportunities to turn corners, run into people, vary a route, etc. Third, streets must mingle buildings of various ages. And fourth, there must be a sufficiently dense concentration of people, including residents, for various purposes.
The show evaluates specific neighborhoods in New York by these criteria. Forest Hills, zoned basically for single-family homes, is dismissed as boring and homogenous, while Flushing, embracing mixed primary uses, is dynamic and diverse. Likewise in her book, Jacobs criticized the Upper West Side of Manhattan as dull because it is almost entirely residential. By contrast, she praised Midtown Manhattan, which had already surpassed Downtown as New York’s major office center, arguing that its success was based on diversity of primary uses. These consisted of high-rise office buildings, a thriving entertainment industry often housed in “blockbuster” format (Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall), and some tall residential buildings along with smaller structures too. (Hardly the low-scale, quiet “Village life” for which Jacobs has been misleadingly seen as a devotee.)
The exhibition’s most contestable, albeit still stimulating section is its uncritical encomium for neighborhood activism. After detailing how Jacobs and the Committee to Save the West Village defeated the Lower Manhattan Expressway and got Washington Square Park closed to traffic, the show foregrounds three contemporary activist groups and generalizes to highlight the virtues of local activism and local, rather than central, planning.
This section, unfortunately, avoids the interesting issues and difficulties associated with neighborhood government and local activism in New York City. While local activism and Community Boards have been important and often beneficial for New York City, there is a good reason why, in 1975, New York City granted Community Boards a mandatory but purely advisory role in its land use review process.
What if, for example, the local Community Board proposes a 197A the neighborhood land use plans that Community Boards can suggest that contravenes Jacobs’s planning principles? Community Board 6 has such a 197A currently before the Department of City Planning to rezone the now-empty Con Edison sites near the United Nations as residential, or single primary use, with the decidedly anti-Jacobs goal of keeping the area quiet and secluded.
Actually, despite its critique of contemporary planners, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities” is a cry for better central planning, albeit a planning that recognizes and respects local and market-based characteristics of neighborhoods. The show does, in fact, present Jacobs’s wonderful analogy between good city planning and a good chess player who recognizes existing assets and tries to deploy them in support of each other.
Indeed, in today’s New York City, it is arguably Mayor Bloomberg’s Department of City Planning that is most faithfully implementing the spirit of Jacobs’s central tenets. The DCP under Amanda Burden sees government’s role as facilitating urban growth and density, especially to provide jobs, yet in a way that is geographically balanced and sensitive to neighborhoods. For example, the DCP has moved from a Manhattan-centered vision by fostering “multiple Downtowns,” in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, as well as on Manhattan’s Far West Side (e.g. the mega Hudson Yards project), while also “downzoning” certain neighborhoods to protect them from excessive development. The DCP has also, albeit prodded by local activists and Community Boards, moved to address the city’s perennial “affordable housing” crisis. Bloomberg has introduced more affordable housing programs than any NY City administration for decades, though the problem remains huge. How this overall Jacobs agenda plays out in the next few years will be one of New York’s central dramas, which the Municipal Arts Society has thoughtfully brought to light.
David Halle is a Professor of Sociology at UCLA and lives in New York City.