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.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, “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, 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 Robert Caro’s famous book) 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.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.
7 responses to “Wrestling with Jane, Robert and Andrés”
howard: great way to start the day with your challenging/informative read. hopefully this post will be the first of many more on a regular basis. well done and congrats. best, jim frost
Seems to me this is just part of the usual tension between the needs of the individual and the needs of the collective. It moves back and forth along a spectrum, and is different in every community. It’s important to note (IMHO – ok maybe not that humble) – that in MOST places in the country the needs of individual property owners/developers are very over-valued relative to the needs of the community. And that’s frankly why we have so much soul-less sprawl in the US. Those places where neighborhood associations, community groups, etc can actually stop or slow development are really pretty rare in the overall scheme of things. We can’t take our eyes of the ball – the big challenge is not in making it easier to build at Ground Zero; the big challenge is still how to we create/rebuild more places that people actually care about as much as lower Manhattan.
Right on! Reminds me of a Springsteen show in the early 90’s, and before playing, “Highway 29,” he spoke of how inflated self-knowledge imposes itself on the yin/yang between the collective souls versus the individual soul (ego?). His song then deftly described the folly of the consequence of individual decisions made on others. Your comment resonates in the same way, it is an eternal pendulum.
Therefore, I have to ask? Is Jane the collective and Robert the singular with Andres acting as shaman in balancing the two?
Thank you for the provocative comment.
Perhaps we can look at it through the lenses of economics and sustainability. The sustainability movement has given us the paradigm of the triple bottom line: environmental, social, and fiscal.
Jacobs was more focused on the environmental and social, Moses more on the fiscal (and perhaps had a different take on what social success was). Why Duany is so compelling, especially as of late, is because he is one of the few urban thinkers who is wrestling with all three metrics (Leinberger is one of the others).
The truth is, though, we are not in an era of scarcity. Billions of private dollars are waiting on the sidelines for viable investments. Unfortunately, we have created an accounting and finance system that requires investors to think in 36 to 60 month time horizons … not the 50 to 100 year cycles that our neighborhoods truly live in.
Looking back may be an answer. While we may not like the results, the scale of the great new towns of the ’60’s and ’70’s (think Columbia, MD, Irvine, CA, Rancho Bernardo (San Diego), CA, and countless other examples) may give us something to study. They were built initially with capital that could be patient, primarily life insurance and pension companies who needed to carefully preserve and generate wealth over the long term. Today, even these formerly patient funding sources are stuck in the same 36 to 60 month metrics of return (look at CalPERS bailing on its real estate investments at exactly the worst possible moment).
We need to find a mechanism to let and encourage long-term and patient capital invest in our urban neighborhoods, seeding them with the infrastructure first (like all of the parkways and sewer systems of the master-planned communities (MPC’s)). What does an urban MPC look like?
Some places to look for ideas may come from the Northwest US. Seattle’s South Lake Union area was seeded with significant patient economic investment from Paul Allen, Microsoft’s co-founder. Concentration of ownership has allowed the area to emerge as a leader in sustainability and a vibrant urban neighborhood. The return wasn’t immediate, but it will be within the investors’ lifetime. And while Mr. Allen wasn’t motivated solely by economic return, if he plays his cards right, it will turn out to be a very good long-term investment.
Portland’s Pearl District provides an example of a very innovative connection of fiscal feasibility, long-term (public) investment, and planning. Initially, the Pearl District’s owners were allowed to build at the relatively low-densities that were feasible in the market due to lower construction costs and the emerging nature of the neighborhood. Good adaptive re-use of historic structures was accomplished during this period. Then, once the streetcar was funded, the owners/developers were required to build at the very high minimum densities necessary to support transit ridership and feasibility. Today a thriving neighborhood results.
I continue to be amazed at how many of my fellow graduates of esteemed urban planning programs do not have even the most basic understanding of the economics of infrastructure and private development. Without an understanding of the cash flow and risk and return metrics of our urban decisions, we will always be at the mercy of developers working for a 36 month return. But, working along side them towards a triple bottom line, we have the possibility to create truly memorable communities.
This will require a shake-up in our metrics for finance, both public and private. In California, it means we need a property tax system that is more about the value of property and the benefits public investment creates than it is about the time the property was bought by its owner. It’s the third-rail of California politics, but the only way out of our thirty-year infrastructure deficit.
The private players have responsibility, too. How can we call on the stewards of our pensions and life security to make investments that are about our lifetime, not their short-term tenure as investment executives?
Howard, Thanks for giving us something to think about.
Your local, let’s talk. Coffee or beer on me. firstname.lastname@example.org
I hear you, but that racket is gone with its expectations associated with the memory days gone by. A few new ideas are in the works as nothing else is… working. Bill Anderson get’s it, but whom else? Thank you!
I’ll join you in that talk over beer(s) or coffee.
We’re working in Point Loma, a proto-community in the Gatzke sense. (One that still needs, and wants, to make itself better, as in existing cities elsewhere to which he refers.)
The good news is that collective Point Loma attitudes can be measured, or tallied, …meaning there is a collective conscience, a prerequisite to planning, and to “visioning.”
But, in our “village,” (we call it a village but not many people walk to it) the parcels are small, impatient (Navy) traffic bisects and clogs everything twice a day, and a 30′ height limit caps most redevelopment ambitions or opportunity.
We want to be prettier, we want to orient to the water two or three streets away (we could close some streets), we want less “random” architecture, we should be another South Hampton.
If ever the time were ripe for a Point Loma “vision” now is it, and I suspect that holds for every “proto-community” in San Diego.
Question: If it’s visions we need to fuel beautiful redevelopment, do Community Plan Updates really work? Or do these “updates” simply amplify the status of the NIMBY?
Question: Is Gatzke suggesting a reversion to the old system of property taxation based upon constant reassessments? Doesn’t that refute the current advantage of holding property forever, thus fueling a long-term community spirit?
Question: Don’t bond issues for public improvements focus government spending much better, while accomplishing the same thing as ever-higher property taxation?
I still think Jane was awesome. Some criticism of her thoughts on urban places not withstanding, an important touchstone in our practice is still “WWJD?”*
Bill Eubanks, FASLA, LEED AP
*What would Jane do?