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Jane Jacobs Centennial Lecture

The Center for the Living City
September 14th, 2016

Jane Jacobs Centennial Lecture

September 14, 2016

Paul Goldberger




It is a great pleasure, and an even greater honor, to be here to be part of the commemoration of Jane Jacobs’ centennial. Thank you, Roberta Gratz and everyone at the Center for the Living City, not just for organizing this series, but for making sure that all of us for so long have understood what Jane Jacobs’ work has meant, and for keeping it front and center in our consciousness.

Like all great figures in our intellectual and cultural life, there is no shortage of commentary on Jane Jacobs and her work, and her 100th birthday is bringing still more, including Matt Tyrnauer’s new film, and two important new books, Robert Kanigel’s biography, Eyes on the Street, and Peter Laurence’s book, Becoming Jane Jacobs. What is there left to say? What is there that hasn’t been said? Her ideas are, in many ways, universal, and they have changed our way of seeing the world. Her name has become shorthand for an entire set of urban values; indeed, say “Jane Jacobs urbanism,” and a set of images will probably come to mind of a lively street, mixed with retail and residential, filled with a diverse group of people engaging in what she famously called the “sidewalk ballet,” based, of course, on the world that surrounded her block on Hudson Street, the part of the West Village that was the inspiration for the wide-ranging and profound set of observations that form the thesis of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

We all know this, as we all know, as Paul Kidder has pointed out in his essay “The Right and the Good in Jane Jacobs’ Urbanism,” that Jacobs’ writings “along with Jacobs herself, have for many years functioned as a powerful moral beacon….Jacobs implicitly addressed issues of what ‘right’ and ‘good’ are in a broad, moral or ethical way….These books present powerful arguments on the ethical underpinnings of what we call liberal democracy. It is the clarity, integrity and broad appeal of these arguments, I believe, that ultimately endowed Jacobs’s activities of civil protest and disobedience with a moral legitimacy…” And Kidder goes on to place Jacobs in the category of great protesters such as Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr.

I think this is correct, although when we place Jane Jacobs in a broader category than the limited world of urbanologists—as, of course, we must—I prefer to group her with the two other women who wrote extraordinary books around the same time as she wrote Death and Life: Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan. What joins together The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Silent Spring and The Feminine Mystique is that all three of them were written by women who were outsiders in their profession, who lacked the requisite credentials for criticizing an entire world of knowledge—whatever those credentials might be—and who were at first dismissed as disrupters who were just trying to get attention by making a loud and angry fuss. It would not last, many critics said; ignore them, they don’t know what they are talking about, others said. Well, we all know that Silent Spring was quickly forgotten, right? It merely launched the environmental movement, which only continues to grow in strength more than half a century after Carson’s book was first published, and has transformed contemporary science and culture and politics. And whatever Betty Friedan was trying to say had no lasting meaning either, correct? After all, the role of women hasn’t changed much since the early nineteen sixties, right? While we cannot attribute all that has happened to either book, we know that both Carson and Friedan were pivotal, helping to give birth to broader movements, large portions of which found their voice through them.

And so too, of course, with Jane Jacobs, the third in this astonishing triumvirate of great women who created world changing books at almost exactly the same time. She may have been treated the worst of the three, because she was taking on a more established field, which had more to protect. Environmentalism and feminism were in their infancy in the early sixties, but city planning was not. It had an establishment, and the establishment did not think much at all of Jane Jacobs. And I think it is fair to say that no critic represented the establishment more than Lewis Mumford, who wrote a stunningly vicious and arrogant review of Death and Life that, in the end, said far more about him than it did about Jacobs.

It is worth talking about for a moment, since it says something not only about the view that “serious”—and I put that word in quotations—urban scholars had about Jacobs at the beginning of her career, it also tells you how much Jane Jacobs, like Rachel Carson and Betty Friedan, was up against. And it gives us insight into the fascinating relationship between Jacobs and Mumford, which was not a simple, oppositional one, although you might think so at first. Mumford, like Jacobs, wrote from a position of moral authority; in fact, he could be far more presumptuous of moral authority than she ever was. Mumford could be sanctimonious in a way that Jane Jacobs never was; he had a fire-and-brimstone quality to him, and he was constantly urging us to follow him to avoid falling into urban doom.

The key thing here is that the Mumford-Jacobs dichotomy, or the Mumford-Jacobs dialectic, or whatever we might call it, was not a simple matter of idealism vs. pragmatism. Mumford, if anything, was the less pragmatic of the two, the more idealistic: he felt very strongly that there was a right way for cities to be, and his vision as an absolute one, resolute and pure—a misguided vision, I think most of us would now agree, but nevertheless resolute and pure in its sincerity and earnestness. It was a vision shaped very much by the Garden City ideology of Patrick Geddes and Ebenezer Howard. Mumford so admired Geddes that he named his only son Geddes Mumford, and he never wavered from his belief that the city could be rigorously and thoroughly planned, and that it needed to be fully planned to be able to save itself from physical and moral chaos. I think Mumford considered physical chaos and moral chaos to be more or less the same thing, which is a big part of the problem. He could not stand messiness, which is why he was particularly bothered by Jane Jacobs’ willingness to accept so many aspects of the urban condition as it was. To Mumford this was the equivalent of a preacher looking the other way when he saw a sin being committed.

Now, it is hard to give Mumford his due when we are talking about him in the context of his relationship with Jane Jacobs, which I think shows him at his absolute worst. He was much better than his condescending and wrong-headed attitude toward Jacobs would suggest. His idealism and moral force made him one of the great public intellectuals of the twentieth century—we should remember that he spoke out against the Vietnam War as vehemently as Jacobs did, and he was an important early critic of American hegemony. As a pure architecture critic, writing about buildings rather than about the broader questions of cities, Mumford could be brilliant, even dazzling, in his insights, and eloquent. And perhaps most important, we should remember that when he was not giving Jane Jacobs a hard time, Mumford was probably the most important, articulate and impactful critic of Robert Moses other than Jacobs herself. The triangle of Mumford, Moses and Jacobs is actually a rather fascinating and strange one, because it so underscores how most things are not simple black and white issues, and that you can come to somewhat similar positions from entirely opposite directions.

Anyway, I will get back to this strange set of relationships—I am inclined to call it an un-love triangle—in a minute or two. For now, let me say something about Mumford’s notorious review of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was published in The New Yorker on December 1, 1962, and called “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies for Urban Cancer.” The title in some ways tells us all we need to know. It is patronizing and sexist, and it portrays Jane Jacobs as an amateur faith healer, selling useless salves and hocus-pocus to poor innocent people who, if they really understood anything, would know that they need a serious, trained surgeon to operate, and to remove this dangerous tumor of urban decay.

I reread the review the other day, and I was fascinated to discover that, while the bottom line is pretty much what the title would lead you to expect, the route Mumford takes to get there is rather more circuitous and even nuanced. The way he approaches the subject reminds us that his own values are those of the humanist, which you would think would put him in something of an awkward position, going up against Jacobs, and it makes for some strange contortions. In the opening sections of the long review—this was in the day when nothing in The New Yorker was short—he does give Jacobs a fair amount of credit, in his somewhat patronizing and roundabout way, for bringing to the profession’s attention the human cost of urban renewal.

Not for Mumford the Robert Moses argument that to make an omelet, you have to break a few eggs; Mumford would never be so obviously callous. He begins with a sympathetic history of public housing, explaining its origins in the reform movement. “Our current high rise housing projects find their sanction in the need to wipe out more than a century of vile housing and provide space for people who have been living in slums holding three hundred to seven hundred people an acre,” Mumford wrote, taking care to note that he hardly approves of the architecture. “On sound hygienic terms, the one way of meeting this demand within the limited areas provided is the erection of tall buildings, whose grim walls are overshadowing ever-larger sections of Manhattan. There is nothing wrong with these buildings except that, humanly speaking, they stink.” Mumford then goes on to remind the reader that he has been criticizing public housing for years, and then, in a left-handed compliment, he finally brings in Jacobs, referring to her as the person who has “stirringly presented” the failings of public housing, and observes, again with a whiff of condescension, that she first became known to planners when she spoke at a conference on urban design at Harvard, where “she blew like a fresh offshore breeze to present a picture, dramatic but not distorted, of the results of displacing large neighborhood populations to facilitate large-scale rebuilding. She pointed out a fact to which many planners and administrators had been indifferent—that a neighborhood is not just a collection of buildings but a tissue of social relations and a cluster of warm personal sentiments, associated with the familiar faces of the doctor and the priest, the butcher and the baker and the candlestick maker, not least with the idea of ‘home.’ Sanitary, steam-heated apartments, she observed, are no substitute for warm-hearted neighbors, even if they live in verminous cold-water flats.”

All of this is pure Mumford: elegant prose, granting of a humanist perspective. He goes on to say: “Mrs. Jacobs’”—she is always Mrs. Jacobs—“Mrs. Jacobs’ criticism established her as a person to be reckoned with. Here was a new kind of ‘expert,’ very refreshing in current planning circles, where minds unduly fascinated by computers carefully confine themselves to asking only the kind of question that computers can answer and are completely negligent of the human contents or the human results. This able woman has used her eyes and, even more admirably, her heart to assay the human results of large-scale housing, and she was saying, in effect, that these toplofty barracks that now crowd the city’s sky line and overshadow its streets are not fit for human habitation.”

All well and good, so far. Mumford starts out craftily, getting us on his side by suggesting that he and Jacobs are the co-occupants of what we might call the humanistic and ethical caucus of critics of public housing. But then, he turns: “From a mind so big with a fresh point of view and pertinent ideas, one naturally expected a book of equally large dimensions. But whereas ‘Sense and Sensibility’ could have been the title of her Harvard talk, what she sets forth in The Death and Life of Great American Cities comes close to deserving the secondary title of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ The shrewd critic of dehumanized housing is still evident….But this excellent clinical analyst has been joined by a character who has patched together out of the bits and pieces of her local personal observations nothing less than a universal theory about the life and death of our great American cities….This new costume of theory, though not quite as airy as the Emperor’s clothes, exposes such large areas of naked unawareness that it devaluates Mrs. Jacobs’ many sound statements.” And he goes on to accuse her of “faulty data, inadequate evidence, and starting miscomprehensions of views contrary to hers.”

After that, Mumford has little positive to say. But let me stay with this a bit longer, because this fascinating essay, while it may well tell us more about Lewis Mumford than about Jane Jacobs, still has some remarkable observations, and every so often is right on point about some of Jacobs’ shortcomings. In his way, almost in spite of himself, Mumford helps us understand Jane Jacobs better.

For example, he calls her to account—correctly, I think—for failing to appreciate projects such as Chatham Village in Pittsburgh, designed by Clarence Stein, and still a model of thoughtful, socially conscious, earnest and humane architecture. Her blind spot regarding some of Stein’s projects and others that might be considered in some ways to be connected, however loosely, to the Garden City movement, reminds us that Jane Jacobs, for all her insight and ability to see things freshly, could have blinders of her own. She could be as guilty of the fallacy of physical determinism as anyone, which is to say that she could often exaggerate the importance of physical form, and believe that physical form was absolute rather than relative in its influence on social patterns and on the success of a particular community.

Neither she nor Mumford, for example, had much that was good to say about Stuyvesant Town, the huge postwar middle-income project that was built by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company for white, middle-class families—not because of its lack of diversity, a legitimate and even urgent failing of the project, but because its physical form in many ways resembled that of the hated public housing towers. Neither Jacobs nor Mumford seemed able to see beyond this fact. Neither was comfortable admitting that even though Stuyvesant Town, like so many of the city’s public housing projects, was based on the Corbusian tower in the park model, the physical form did not, in fact, get in the way of a viable and stable and solid community. True, Stuyvesant Town rejects the model of the urban street that Jacobs has helped us to appreciate, and true, it has far more in common as a physical thing with failed projects than with successful ones. But it is not in itself a failed project, and Jacobs couldn’t bring herself to admit this any more than Mumford could. (I might say parenthetically that it is a lot easier to appreciate Stuyvesant Town today, when we have more than six decades of mature growth in the landscaping, than it was back when the complex was new. Whatever you think of the virtues of the tower in the park, at least now it truly is a park, and in some ways a very beautiful one, whereas in the early years of the complex, it was austere and could be chilling.)

Anyway, back to the review of Death and Life. So we have two people who share a hatred of bureaucracy and bureaucratic thinking, and a deeply rooted belief that high-rise towers in open space are fundamentally inhuman. You would think that this would give them common ground. Yet they are totally opposite in what they do with these shared perceptions. Mumford goes on to rip Death and Life apart, or at least to try and do so; his comments as the review goes on seem less and less convincing, and more and more like those of a man who is desperately clinging to a set of ideas that are far more rigid, and far less connected to empirical observation, than he understands. He refers to her underlying thesis as emerging from the belief that “the sidewalk, the street, and the neighborhood, in all their higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness, are the very core of a dynamic urban life,” and the phrase “higgledy-piggledy unplanned casualness,” like the title “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies,” is absolutely dripping with disdain. To Mumford, who believes that the highest aspiration of man is in the rational, logical solution of problems, few things are more distasteful than “unplanned casualness,” which he views not as a good example of recognizing empirical truth, but as an intellectual cop-out of the highest order.

And that, in the end, is what Mumford concludes about Death and Life, and about Jane Jacobs herself, that she represents a kind of intellectual cop-out. He exaggerates the extent to which Jacobs’ theories are driven by the issue of crime prevention, taking note of her concept of “eyes on the street,” but thinking of it as shaping everything Jacobs has to say about the city, and accusing Jacobs of believing that everything about the form of cities should really be determined by the search for safety from crime. Of course “eyes on the street” is in fact only a part of a more complex equation, and safety is hardly Jacobs’ sole determinant.

My sense is that Mumford views crime, like everything else, as a matter of rational planning—he is not unsympathetic to the issue, but he probably believed that if we gave everyone fresh, clean, sanitary apartments and access to education then they would have no reason to rob anyone else, and all would be well. Keep in mind that it’s not as though Mumford came from the “lock ‘em up” school—again, he was hardly a right-winger, hardly a law-and-order type. I think he knew full well how badly our society treats its underclass, and he knew that we needed to broaden their opportunities, give them education and a better quality of life. We cannot argue with him on that. But that hardly invalidates Jacobs’ idea that a busy street, whatever it may look like, is a safer place than an empty street.

Empty streets probably did not contradict Mumford’s idea of a good urban environment; in his ideal world, it would have meant only that everyone was busy at the library, pursuing knowledge and self-improvement. Excessive crowding and activity, on the other hand, bothered him enormously. Mumford was, if nothing else, prim and stuffy to the core. It is the primness, I think, that is the most stunning thing to us today. At another point in the review he takes off after Jacobs to say that, “Her simple formula does not suggest that her eyes have ever been offended by ugliness….or her ears offended by the roar of trucks smashing through a once-quiet neighborhood.” All that matters to Jacobs, he asserts, is that density be high, there be no superblocks and that there be a mix of different activities. Then, Mumford says, “all her social and aesthetic demands are satisfied.” And he then quotes her line, “A city cannot be a work of art,” which he follows with the snide comment, “The citizens of Florence, Siena, Venice and Turin should take note.”

But the issue is not so much aesthetics, which Jane Jacobs was never opposed to; her objection was only to making them the exclusive determinant of urban design. It is really about order, and how much there can and should be a sense of pure order to the city, about how much the city could or should be patterned and diagrammed, and about how dense the city should be allowed to become. The ordered, patterned city is also the city whose density is strictly controlled, and limited. The fear of disorder is, as much as anything else, a fear of density and crowding run rampant.

As the great Holly Whyte reminded us often, the classic postwar view of the city as an overcrowded mess that needed to be thinned out, made less dense, emerged in large part from Mumford, and his unrelenting advocacy of the garden city idea.  Mumford tells us in his review that as a native New Yorker he has lived in every kind of housing in New York at one point or another in his life, and “I am still unregenerate enough to prefer a quiet flat with a back garden on Hicks Street or a row house backing on a green common in Sunnyside Gardens to all the dingy ‘liveliness’ of Clinton Street as it was back in the twenties.” Take that, Jane Jacobs! Not for Mumford the Lower East Side, which he viewed as a place to get out of, not as a place to learn from.

“Mrs. Jacobs’ most original proposal, then, as a theorist of metropolitan development,” Mumford tells us, “is to turn its chronic system of disorder—excessive congestion—into a remedy….It is her belief…that congestion and disorder are the normal, indeed the desirable, conditions of life in cities. But it is now a well-established fact in biology that overcrowded quarters produce stress even in animals, a state marked by anxiety and hostility.” Not for nothing had Mumford done an entire series of articles for The New Yorker a few years earlier on overbuilding in New York, in which he complained that New York—this is the early 1950’s, remember—that New York was becoming increasingly unlivable, and felt so pressured and overcrowded and traffic clogged that it was, to him, like a concentration camp.

Well, not the least of Jacobs’ cultural influences on us all has been to lead us to embrace, not reject, density, and so much has changed in the 54 years since this review was published that Mumford’s view on this particular issue seems now hopelessly quaint, even anti-urban, totally indifferent to the generative energy that emerges out of both the density and the randomness of crowded urban situations.

Mumford also takes Jacobs to task regarding her skepticism towards large urban parks. Here, I will say, as in a couple of other parts of his review, he found a weak spot. Jacobs’ bias toward the city street, toward the conventional, dense, stoop-filled, retail-filled block is so great that she often underestimated the value of great enterprises such as Central Park and Prospect Park, viewing them as examples of the kind of over-arching mega-projects that she generally found to be insufficiently connected to the fine grain of urban tissue. Mumford correctly says we should hardly hold Frederick Law Olmsted responsible for the postwar era’s inability to maintain the vision, not to say the physical condition, of his great parks, and I think it is fair to give him that point.

But let’s get to the bottom line, which for Mumford is the contradiction he sees between, and again I quote, Jane Jacobs admiration for the “intimate values of neighborhood life” and “her unqualified adoration of metropolitan bigness and dynamism.” A great city, in Mumford’s view, is far more than an agglomeration of workable small parts. It needs something bigger, some overall metropolitan and even regional vision, if it is to grow and prosper.

One cannot argue with that, at least in principle, nor with the fact that Mumford, for all he detested Robert Moses, was always like Moses a big picture man, seeking the over-arching vision. It is just that his vision was not the same as Moses’ vision. Mumford and Moses both wanted to rationalize the form of the city and the region, but they had very different ideas of density, of physical form, of social relationships and of political process. But neither of them saw the city in the fine-grained way that Jacobs did.

Jane Jacobs’ fine-grained view of the city, her belief that it is not entirely rational or entirely plan-able, that it has an organic life of its own that we need to respect—and that the life of the street is one of the most important metrics of urban health that we have—all of this has now, of course, become common wisdom. Mumford’s celebrated review represented a kind of last gasp of an older way of thinking, and while I disagree with much of it quite profoundly, it did provide a useful counterpoint to what has become, in the last generation, a rather simplified notion of the Moses-Jacobs dialectic as explaining everything about how we should look at cities.

We could sum up that dialectic as being one of centralized power as represented by Moses versus decentralized, neighborhood and citizen-based power as represented by Jane Jacobs. We know, of course, how much the pendulum has swung in our time from the Moses way of thinking to the Jacobs way of thinking—encouraged not only by the continued veneration of Jane Jacobs as a cultural figure, but also by the revisionist view of Moses as put forth by Robert Caro in his celebrated biography The Power Broker of 1974. It is amazing to realize that Caro’s book followed Death and Life by roughly a dozen years, and that it is itself now more than forty years old.

I don’t disagree with the usefulness of the Moses-Jacobs dialectic, or argue with the notion that it is fundamentally correct. But the duality it represents is highly limited, simplistic, and rather clichéd at this point, and it turns the nuanced conversation we ought to be having about urbanity, about urbanism, into a simple matter of black and white. I want to argue for bringing Lewis Mumford back into the equation, since when we think about the Jacobs-Mumford-Moses triangle we have to have a much more realistic discussion—a more three-dimensional one, if you will—that I think can help our understanding of Jane Jacobs, in the long run, because it raises her above the cliché of Moses big and bad, Jacobs small and good. If nothing else, incorporating Lewis Mumford into the Jane Jacobs discussion can force us to look at her more realistically.

I think by now it should be clear that I am not saying this to endorse Mumford’s view of Jacobs, which is almost always condescending, sexist, and wrongheaded. But let me go back to the three-way argument rather than the dialectic by using the example of the question of the automobile and its impact on the city. Here, we find Mumford and Jacobs, intellectual opponents though they were, more in agreement than disagreement. I would say that they were not only the two most articulate critics of Robert Moses, they were also among the most important advocates of limiting the impact of the automobile in the city. Mumford may have liked garden cities and believed in regional planning, but he had no more interest than Jacobs did in seeing the city destroyed by the car. I think it is fair to say that he believed as much as she did that the automobile was the enemy of the city. Here, as with their attitude toward urban renewal policy, Jacobs and Mumford were more on the same side of the fence, though their styles and their sensibilities could not have been more different.

All of this matters now because we are today in great danger of viewing Jane Jacobs not as a creative and often surprising thinker, but as something of a cliché, and Mumford, whatever his other issues, helps us avoid this. It is somewhat paradoxical, because Mumford’s own view of Jacobs is not only patronizing and sexist, as I said, it is also more or less in line with the cliché of Jacobs as someone whose sole interest was in making everything in the world look like the West Village. The Mumford-Jacobs duality is no more helpful in terms of real insight than the Moses-Jacobs duality. Each reduces the other to cliché.

I don’t buy the notion that Jane Jacobs was nothing but a walking advertisement for Greenwich Village. She knew better than to believe that a few cafes and some nice retail could solve all of our problems, and she was far more politically savvy. She was a radical, and an outsider, and a brilliant observer whose fundamental common sense led her to a deep skepticism about the way in which cities were being developed, and she understood that cities had an organic nature to them, and the power, like all living things, to regenerate under the right circumstances, with the right guidance.

The cliché of Jane Jacobs as the sweet lover of all things modest and friendly and neighborhood-y, the cliché of Greenwich Village as the ultimate neighborhood model, has two serious dangers. The first we see all the time: that Jacobs, having gone from being the radical outsider denounced by Mumford, representing the intellectual establishment, as well as by the political establishment of planning, has now become an accepted, even mainstream, figure, with her ideas being oversimplified and all too often adopted by those who exploit them for their own profit, and for very different ends. When I saw, back in the early 2000’s, the proposed football stadium for the west side of Manhattan justified as having the potential to engage the street life of the area and enhance its neighborhood qualities, we know that Jane Jacobs had gotten, you could say, a little too far into the mainstream. Same with the many new commercial retail projects springing up around the country that call themselves “villages” or “lifestyle centers,” those places that are sort of like malls but with little streets and no roof and so you get to walk from the Cheesecake Factory to J Crew to H&M by going along a sidewalk and past something called the “town square” instead of walking through a covered mall. I’m sure you’ve seen them—City Walk in West Palm Beach, Easton outside of Columbus, and so forth. Developers proclaim these places to be like real cities, as if they were a natural outgrowth of Jacobs’ ideas. The term “mixed use,” which started as a sharp-eyed writer’s observation of what underlies an organic urban fabric, has become instead a developer’s mantra.

Now these places are better than malls, and they do represent a certain limited advance. But they are no more connected to the real city and its complicated, organic ecosystem than the mall is. They are things apart, designed, built, owned and managed as corporate entities, and yet they often present themselves as being inspired by the ideas of Jane Jacobs. And, in a sense, they are. But they are a reminder that the price of widespread success for any intellectual movement is that its ideas can be simplified, corrupted, co-opted and vulgarized.

There is another, more subtle, risk to the widespread acceptance of ideas that were radical back when Mumford wrote about Jane Jacobs, which is that we allow them to become frozen in time. It is important to remember that the Greenwich Village that inspired Jane Jacobs back in the nineteen fifties no longer exists. It has been physically preserved, more or less, and we have her, among others, to thank for that, since in her role as a neighborhood activist she helped prevent Robert Moses from making far more dramatic incursions into the Village than he did. But if Jacobs’ neighborhood looks essentially as it did back in her time, we know it is not really the same at all. In some ways it has become too big and too gentrified to continue to function as Jane Jacobs wanted it to.

In her day, a fairly natural process gave us the Village she loved, and gave us the rest of the neighborhood-rich, pedestrian-oriented, exquisitely balanced city New York once was. Jacobs’ greatest contribution was in recognizing that planning was not able to do much except upset this natural equilibrium—and that discretion was the better part of planning valour. Leave it alone, in other words, and don’t upset the natural evolution of things.

Well, today, leaving it alone doesn’t give us the city we want, the city that Jane Jacobs helped us to admire. Today, the natural order of things yields something very different from the vibrant, highly diverse world Jacobs taught us to admire. The natural processes of growth now give us sprawl; they give us gigantism; they give us economic segregation, they often give us homogeneous, dreary design, and most important of all, they eviscerate the diversity that Jacobs taught us was so critical. To live in Jane Jacobs’ West Village neighborhood now you need to be an investment banker, which was not what she wanted to see happen.

I am not sure that her period of mid-twentieth century New York was not something of a historical anomaly in the way that diversity, human scale and vitality seemed present as a matter of course. But that is another discussion for another time. For now, I think we can agree that these things no longer occur naturally, and that to keep them here—to assure that the city remains diverse, visually alive, physically appealing, and culturally vital—we need to do exactly the opposite of what she recommended. We need to intervene. We cannot stand aside and let nature take its course, as she wisely wanted to do in the Greenwich Village she knew in the 1950’s. In Jacobs’ day, intervention into organic urban growth was symbolized by the destructive acts of a Robert Moses. Today, however, the forces that need to intervene are the forces set in motion by Jane Jacobs herself. To preserve her values, we have no choice but to think boldly, as both Mumford and Moses would have had us do. We can no longer trust that the city will take care of itself, or continue to believe that the greatest wisdom is in restraint, in standing back. That is the paradox, and the challenge, of keeping Jane Jacobs’ vision alive in the twenty-first century.


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