In Jane's Footsteps

Get your walking shoes out. This weekend (May 2 and 3) is the annual Jane's Walk, dedicated to everyone's favorite grassroots urbanist. Inspired by Jane Jacobs' close attention to the everyday experience of urban life as it unfolds on the ground as a basis for understanding and acting upon the city, volunteers will lead free walking tours in over 200 neighborhoods in North America, and for the first time, in India (where PUKAR will lead the way). Organized by the Centre for City Ecology in Canada and by the Center for the Living City in the US, Jane's Walk included over 6000 participants last year, its second in existence. Many tours focus on the built environment, but others touch on local culture, history or crucial planning issues. It's not too late to lead your own...

The walks celebrate Jacobs' simple and groundbreaking idea that in order to figure out what will work for cities, one has to look at how people actually experience the city at ground level and plan with people at the center, rather than on the basis of car traffic, utopian models or scientific formulas. Not a formally trained planner herself, Jacobs' principles (higher densities, mixed uses, short blocks) are now the ABC's of the field. More importantly, her promotion of community-based planning as a counterpoint to top-down master-planning was responsible for a vast paradigm shift. It's no accident that Where readers voted her seminal treatise, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, into the top position of our list of best books for the novice urbanist.

To what extent have Jane's footsteps left a lasting imprint? According to Hilary Ballon, an architectural historian at NYU quoted in the NY Times' City Room blog, this is a "'golden moment for the rebirth of city planning... after a long period of tremendous suspicion about the viability and value of a master plan' — suspicions fueled by a perception of 'evil top-down planners who didn't understand what neighborhoods needed.'" She was introducing a talk on April 15 by Daniel L. Doctoroff, deputy mayor until early 2008, on PlaNYC, what he called '"one of the most sweeping, most comprehensive blueprints for New York ever undertaken."

Based on the premise that New York's population is expanding rapidly, its infrastructure is aging, and its environment is at increasing risk from climate change, PlaNYC lays out a detailed framework for meeting goals in the arenas of land, water, transportation, energy, air and climate change. The plan was created after a four-month public outreach process, including consultation with advocacy groups and town hall meetings in all five boroughs. With characteristic NYC bravado, the plan claims to be a model for city planning in the 21st century.

Are we indeed witnessing the rebirth of far-reaching master-planning, but with new features? Is this a happy medium: planning for tomorrow while making residents' needs and voices central? Or are Jane Jacobs' views on the importance of keeping our feet on the ground and involving communities being diluted to token community outreach meetings?

(Flyer from the Center for the Living City. Photo of Jane by Maggie Steber, Planning Magazine, 1986, sampled here.)

1 comment:

Benjamin Hemric said...

It seems to me that many contemporary "urbanists" and "planners" (le.g., Daniel Doctoroff, Amanda Burden, chairperson of NYC's planning commission, and Hilary Balon, etc.) mistakenly think planning is OK -- and maybe even "Jane Jacobs approved" -- as long as it takes into account the wishes of local communities. I think this is incorrect on both counts (i.e., being a good idea in general and being Jane Jacobs approved). (Whether the plans of Doctoroff et al. really take into account the wishes of local communities is yet another, separate, issue. Norman Oder, of the blog "Atlantic Yards Report" seems to be covering this aspect of the issue.)

Judging from all her writings (all seven of her major books, not just a few chapters of the first one) and a number of her interviews, it seems to me that Jane Jacobs has outlined a way of looking at cities and economies that is much more anti-planning (even by "local communities") than most people realize. (See especially her chapters on "drift" in "Cities and the Wealth of Nations" and a similar one towards the end of "The Nature of Economies.")

Judging from her writings and civic activism, it seems to me that Jacobs was less for general planning (or "comprehensive planning"), even community-based "comprehensive planning," than for honest, democratically arrived at government decisions over governmental responsibilities, like roads, parks, etc. This, so it seems to me, is VERY DIFFERENT from comprehensive planning and deciding what a city or an economy should ultimately become and how to go about getting it to be that way.