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Frank Gruber

Frank Gruber

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Proxy Wars: More on Reconsidering Jane Jacobs

Posted: 05/11/11 09:21 PM ET

As discussed in Part 1 of my review of Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, the book published by the American Planning Association to mark the 50 year after publication of The Death and Life Great American Cities, the latter three essays in the book analyze, critically, the impact that Jane Jacobs has had on urban planning and development.

The theme that runs through these essays is that Jane Jacobs had an unassailable insight, namely that planning from the "aerial view" had been a disaster, and needed to be replaced with planning based on a view of the street, but that inasmuch as the past 50 years of urban development have been a disaster, somehow Jacobs is to blame.

This theme first becomes apparent in the introduction by co-editor Max Page, who declares that his admiration for Jacobs is tempered by the current price tag for her house in Greenwich Village: $3.5 million. Jacobs "saved the neighborhood," Page says, but she "did not foresee what it would become -- an area nearly uniformly for the wealthy."

Page also expresses regret that when Jacobs celebrated the city as it existed (which Page confuses with nostalgia), what was lost was the dynamism of city building; he writes: "The sense of place of the city emanates not from stability, stasis, repetition, and homogeneity but from convulsive change, which is often destructive but also historically and, potentially, creative."

True, Page says that he is responding more to the construct "Jane Jacobs" than what the real life person wrote, but even so it is hard to fault Jacobs for the scarcity of city neighborhoods as good as Greenwich Village, and thus the real estate prices there, or attribute to her the idea that the city should stand still. It is unlikely that Jacobs thought that a city's "sense of place" emanates from convulsive change -- but one must wonder if anyone, including Page, truly believes that. Convulsive change can create places, but would anyone say that the defining characteristic of convulsive change is "sense of place?"

In the first of the final three critical essays in the book, Jill Grant, a professor of planning at Dalhousie University, considers the relationship between Jacobs and New Urbanism. What becomes apparent is that Grant doesn't like Jacobs, but because of Jacobs' unassailable status, Grant goes after her through that convenient punching bag, New Urbanism.

It's not my purpose here to evaluate New Urbanism, but rather to examine Grant's arguments. Unfortunately, these are convoluted and misleading, particularly about what Jacobs stood for (most notably that by arguing for a mixture of uses, Jacobs was embracing a physical, design-based determinism). Grant then tries to prove simultaneously that New Urbanism is based on Jane Jacobs, but gets her wrong and isn't really based on Jacobs.

It's hard to take Grant seriously when she writes sentences like "[i]n the early 1980s [New Urbanist] architect-planners such as Andrés Duany and Peter Calthorpe designed suburban and exurban developments that articulated design principles similar to those Jacobs espoused," as if Jacobs ever espoused anything about suburban and exurban developments. Grant wants to declare that the New Urbanists are Jacobs' avatars as builders, but at the same time she (like other anti-New Urbanist planners) finds it most convenient to criticize them for the places they have designed that are based on a small-town aesthetic.

To give another example of how strained Grant's arguments are, she begins one paragraph with the sentence, "New urbanism works primarily in the neighborhood scale that Jacobs criticized," and then begins the very next paragraph with the words, "Jacobs reveled in small-scale neighborhoods operating at the street-level." True, Jacobs found neighborhoods important for some purposes and not important for others, but then perhaps New Urbanists have complex ideas about neighborhoods, too.

In another paragraph, Grant admits there is a "paucity" of citations to Jacobs in New Urbanist writings, but then says that doesn't matter, because the ideas "seem implicit." Specifically, Grant finds similarities in the writings of Andrés Duany to Jacobs' ideas, but no references to Jacobs; this prompts Grant to dismiss them both with this arch comment: "Perhaps Duany employs the same style of architectural critique as Jacobs -- dispensing with academic citations that might have shown his reading of Jacobs." (This from someone who makes declarations with words like "seem implicit.")

Grant ends with the assertion that "to the extent" (!) Jacobs' ideas have affected planning they have been "linked to new urbanism principles and methods embedded with smart growth strategies and wedded to ideals of sustainability and livability." While doubtless there are New Urbanists eager to agree with Grant that they carry higher than anyone else the banner of Jane Jacobs thought, or, for that matter, are responsible for smart growth and sustainability, it is unclear where Grant gets this idea that to have an impact on planning Jacobs required New Urbanism.

What the New Urbanists take from Jane Jacobs is what nearly every other planner or urbanist working today takes from Jacobs regardless in what context they work: a set of pro-urban values. Love of the city. What was revolutionary about Jacobs in 1961, 15 years into a half-century of sprawl, was not that she stood up to Robert Moses, urban renewal and Modernism, but that she proclaimed her love for city life.

Everyone else was saying, "Get Out!" and she was saying "Stay!"

(In Part 3 of this review, I'll discuss the remaining two critical essays in Reconsidering Jane Jacobs.)

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.