Planning and Building for the Future, Dead: Round Up the Usual Suspects

06/08/2011 05:05 pm ET | Updated Aug 08, 2011

The final essay in Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, the book that I have been reviewing now in several installments, is about the impact Jane Jacobs had on the planning profession. It's not a pretty picture. In the essay, entitled "Jane Jacobs and the Death and Life of American Planning," Thomas J. Campanella, a professor of urban planning and design at the University of North Carolina, describes and discusses the grim descent that planning as a profession has taken in the 50 years since publication of Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Campanella begins by looking back to when planning was a profession known for visionaries such as Frederick Law Olmsted, Daniel Burnham, and John Nolan, and then describes how in the postwar years planners "aided and abetted some of the most egregious acts of urban vandalism in American history," i.e., urban renewal. Then, after Death and Life, planning lost its "muscular physical-interventionist focus" and became a "minor profession" of bureaucrats, one that was hardly taken seriously by anyone else.

In Campanella's view, although Jacobs was right to condemn the complicity of planning in postwar urban destruction, her legacy was that planning as a potential tool of progressive government was destroyed; as he puts it, "the planning baby was thrown out with the urban-renewal bathwater." Instead the "grassroots" were empowered. This was ill-fated because "[t]he fatal flaw of such populism is that no single group of local citizens -- mainstream or marginalized, affluent or impoverished -- can be trusted to have the best interests of society or the environment in mind when they evaluate a planning proposal." As he says, one cannot assume that citizens involved in grassroots planning will be "Gandhian humanists." "For who, if not the planner," Campanella asks, "will advocate on behalf of society at large?"

Campanella does not blame Jacobs for what happened to his profession. He acknowledges that she made the right argument at the right time. Nonetheless, planners, he says, in her aftermath became timid, abandoning physical planning especially of the visionary sort, a field they left to urban theorists (he mentions William McDonough and Richard Florida), architects (e.g. Andrés Duany and Rem Koolhaas) and even journalists (e.g. Joel Kotkin and James Howard Kunstler).

Although Campanella laments the current curriculum used to train planners as a reflection of this lost sense of higher purpose, he extends his complaint beyond what Jacobs' truths might have done to the planning profession. His ultimate beef is with a society that will not build the infrastructure that it needs for its continued prosperity. He longs for the New Deal, the "finest hour" of American planning, when during a great economic calamity the government built improvements that Americans still use today.

While Campanella says that we need a muscular government to accomplish such great things, he for the most part blames a citizenry that no longer shares values about the public realm that are necessary to support a bold course of government action. He attributes this to a sense of self-interest that he finds rooted in the various "cultural revolutions" that started with the civil rights movement.

It seems bizarre, at least to this reader, to blame America's failure to maintain and modernize its transportation systems, its schools, and every other aspect of the public realm (with the exception of sports stadiums!) on the social and cultural gains of minorities, women, gays, etc., when a much more obvious explanation is the fact that for 40 years America's economy and fiscal decisions have largely been in the hands of the intellectual, economic, political, and actual descendents of those who fought tooth and nail the New Deal that Campanella appropriately admires.

Surely the self-interest that manifests itself in the mantra "no taxes" predates in America those interests, self- or not, that resulted in the expansion of civil rights and personal liberties over the past half-century.

While anxiety and distress over the left's victories in the culture wars was a large factor in the Republican electoral success that enabled conservative domination of economic policies over the past 40 years, it is not fair or logical for Campanella to blame the very victims of urban renewal, or women who only recently had any significant political power, for the failure to make the public investments America needed and could easily have afforded during a time of tremendous private accumulation (and sadly, wasteful dissipation) of wealth.

But Campanella's essay raises the important question: what went wrong? If Jacobs showed the way with Death and Life, why did so few follow it? Why have the 50 years since publication of the book been so disastrous for American cities and the landscapes surrounding them?

Certainly no one can blame either Jane Jacobs the real thinker and writer or any imagined construct identified as "Jane Jacobs." Correlation is not the same as causation. But that doesn't make the question, "what went wrong" less important, both as a matter of policy and as for understanding the history of the times.

The wounds were, of course, self-inflicted. This was suicide, not murder. Why did America destroy its cities?

Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, edited by Max Page and Timothy Mennel, published by American Planning Association/Planners Press.

Frank Gruber writes a weekly column on local politics, which often involve land use issues, for the Santa Monica Lookout News, a news website. His first book, Urban Worrier: Making Politics Personal, was published by City Image Press.

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