A Placemaking Journal

Wrestling with Jane, Robert and Andrés

Recently, I have been intrigued by newly emerging books and articles critical of Jane Jacobs’ legacy on our built environment. Fifty years ago, she was the community activist who ‘saved’ New York city’s Greenwich Village and went on to become the post-modern icon to inspire citizens and urbanist to this day. She was ranked first in Planetizen’s Top 100 Urban Thinkers poll in 2009. This newfound criticism is specifically leveled at her for the gentrification woes of the Village today and for the general rise of NIMBYs across the nation.

What are we going to do with you, Jane?

Andrés Duany, Planetizen’s second Top 100 Urban Thinker, has wisely pointed out that the few great neighborhoods in any town, such as Greenwich Village in NYC, are expensive because they’re rare. As Christopher Leinberger writes, in The Option of Urbanism: Investing in a New American Dream, “Americans are voting with their feet to live in urban neighborhoods,” and our Great Recession has changed the market to focus on small-scale infill redevelopment in those few great neighborhoods. NIMBYs have been effective obstructionists for many years but the game is changing. With redevelopment of existing neighborhoods often being a municipality’s only hope for future revenue, NIMBYs simply cannot be avoided anymore.

That means angst in the development community is no longer knocking at the door. It’s now invited itself in and is currently going through your fridge.

Anthony Flint’s book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, is a great read and provides Jane’s well-known story with depth in both detail and humanity. The web and newspaper articles are less poignant and criticize Jane for her NIMBY legacy. In the Wall Street Journal’s, “Enough with Jane Jacobs Already,” Andrew Manshel illustrates Jane’s legacy as blocking real-estate development and driving up the price of real estate. These stories lament the loss of the Robert Moses power broker type (to borrow from the title of The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York) needed to simply get things done today. Getting things built, they say, is of utmost importance, with our collective fear rising in our realization that our prolonged Great Recession is of dramatic economic consequence.

Iconic for a reason: The unseen power of the picket fence.

Today’s historic reinterpretation of Jane Jacobs, from municipal and citizen planning icon to facilitator of obstruction, reveals to me that the development community is genuinely scared and looking for answers. Historically, when faced with crisis, people tend to look backwards for solutions. An effective example is the New Urbanism itself, which looked in this direction to solve our nation’s suburban sprawl crisis. We looked back towards the empty city cores and past town building techniques to relearn walkable neighborhood design principles to counter regional auto-dominance. New Urbanism successfully integrated Clarence Perry’s 1920‘s Neighborhood Unit with Patrick Geddes diagrams to create the rapidly emerging standard in context-sensitive planning, the rural-to-urban transect.

Unfortunately, collective fear of the unknown, with its concurrent search for easy answers, typically trumps the hard work of change and adaptation. New Urbanists need to be aware of the development community stepping backwards and grasping at ineffective solutions, such as Robert Moses and his one-size-fits-all approach to public process (his way and/or the highway). Fortunately for our profession, Andrés Duany is still alive and thereby assumes the role of Planetizen’s Top Urban Thinker in 2010. He appears to be reveling in this role as he continues his prodigious production of solutions for today’s urban issues.

Recently, Andrés suggested looking all the way back to our post-Civil War west as possibly the correct time period to study how we move forward from this point in our recession. This perspective was probably reinforced by his Haitian earthquake housing solutions after re-thinking and learning from the traumatic experience in leading the Rebuilding Mississippi and Louisiana Speaks efforts post-Hurricane Katrina. Provocative, his thesis on revising our economic scale in light of resource scarcity is reminiscent of the 1870 – 1880’s boom/bust period. This is also the time period of the Industrial Revolution and the ideological change experienced that is similar to the rise of sustainability and its new place in our moral or ethical compass.

Andrés also proposes reforming the public process lamented in NYC with a grand jury type of organization, as used in Australia. His solution is for a public process that places the neighbor in their correct role as one of several community-scale stakeholders rather than allowing that same neighbor to claim power as the default decision-maker. Working at this frontline intersection of infill redevelopment urban design and public process is the real value New Urbanists can deliver to calm the development industry’s collective anxiety.

With everyone wrestling over Jane Jacobs’ legacy out of fear over the upcoming NIMBY showdown to build in the next 20-years, it appears Andrés Duany has stepped up to give definite answers to difficult questions in order to get things done.

–Howard Blackson

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