Frank Gruber on Jane Jacobs in the HuffPo

Frank Gruber on Jane Jacobs in the HuffPo
Richard Florida has been tweeting Frank Gruber’s essays reviewing APA’s reissuing of The Life and Death of Great American Cities.

From the first essay: In the introduction to Reconsidering Jane Jacobs, a new book from the American Planning Association, co-editor Max Page writes that the book “is less about Jane Jacobs as an individual than about ‘Jane Jacobs’ as the shorthand for a set of ideas and planning practices that have spread around the world over the past half century, some of which the individual named Jane Jacobs might not have recognized as her own.”

IOW, Jane Jacobs means what a bunch of planners have decided she meant because they have a strong self-interest co-opting her critique in order to re-legitimize their profession.

My mathematician father-in-law took great relish in telling me that Jane Jacobs said that planners don’t know what they are doing–because, of course, all planners believe and do the same thing (just like all lawyers, doctors, and engineers do all the same things in the same way, there are no controversies in those fields, and that’s all there is to it), and, of course, what all those planners believe hasn’t changed in 50 years and should be defined as what they did 50 years ago.

But his basic point was sound: my read of Jacobs was that Jacobs thought planners should shut up and go away, and let markets and communities sort things.

From Gruber’s second essay:

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.

This point gets made pretty often. But I wonder: How much of the New Urbanism is really a love of cities, and how much of it is the love of a certain class of Americans (white, urban, affluent, etc etc) take in preaching to others how to live, while wrapping themselves in the moral blanket of environmental protection? (A blanket that, by every measure, is pretty thin given that piecemeal developments are an ineffectual environmental strategy.) IOW, how much of this is the same old paternalism this group of supposedly progressive people have always taken in bossing others?

But then, I’m an anti-New Urbanist planner, so my arguments are all one-dimensional.

8 thoughts on “Frank Gruber on Jane Jacobs in the HuffPo

  1. “But his basic point was sound: my read of Jacobs was that Jacobs thought planners should shut up and go away, and let markets and communities sort things”

    Better read again Lisa. Jacobs’ problem with planning wasn’t that it existed, but that it did not have a good understanding of the city and how it works, and actually implemented plans that destroyed the life of cities and their capacity to regenerate. She actually does propose in her book six principles for better planning – all geared to encourage diversity which she saw as the great strength of cities.

    And regarding NU, have you actually bothered to go to any of the congresses, or even browse their programs? and while there may be some people there that believe that just by building cute little developments the world will be saved, many are involved in the kind of work that changes the way the world is actually made, on very large scales. The work on smartcodes, retooling street design, dismantling unneeded freeways, creating transit options etc. So while we wait for the revolution, we might be doing what we are normally do in a saner way.

  2. Well, I may need to read again, as it’s been years. But I don’t need to in order to refute the first point. I didn’t say that Jacobs didn’t believe in planning. I suggested that she didn’t necessarily believe in planners. There’s a difference.

    As to the snark about whether I’ve bothered to go to the Congresses, please. You can’t be a planning professional or researcher without having the NU and Smart Growthers screaming/hyping their (often wonderful, just as often limited, but still nice) accomplishments from the rooftops. I’m happy to applaud when a freeway comes down. No problem.

    If you think about it, I did two things in that last comment that set you off. I suggested that a) maybe part of the NU is paternalism and b) their environmental claims are probably overblown. Neither of those strike me as particularly damning or impossible to overcome. And yet the response was accusatory. It’s EXACTLY this sort of tone that you take here– “you’re either FER US or AGIN US, and if you’re AGIN US YER IGGNERANT/PROVINICIAL” tone that just makes advocates of the NU come off as bullies and/or elite who would rather shout down people rather than listen to the concerns and address them.

  3. “piecemeal developments are an ineffectual environmental strategy”

    Yet in the real world, how else is anything going to get done in communities where public opinion is hostile or divided? Isn’t there value in setting a precedent for development in which proximity to things creates opportunities to walk, and which, if repeated as a pattern, could support convenient transit service?

  4. Actually I was set off by neither a) nor b), but by the characterization of NU as mostly about piecemeal developments. That I think is a great misunderstainding of what NU is about. The important work of NU is in changing many of the rules by which development is done, and by promoting urban living in the US – the piecemeal work is mostly important to show that it’s possible to do administratively and profitably. I read your blog and find it interesting and entertaining and usually thougtful and observant, so I was surprised at your shallow understanding of what NU is about.
    Take the time to re-read Jacobs – I’ve done so after more than 20 years and saw so much more than I remebered.

  5. @ Chewie–but what if the continued promises of the NU and walkability drown out a discussion of more effective, near-term action on environmental change?

    And, ultimately, why does a development have to change the world in order to be valuable? What if building walkable places just provides local residents with new amenities? What if new walkable developments actually increase the amount of people who drive there to walk? Would that mean the development was bad?

    In the US, and in California, there is plenty of piecemeal, cherrypicked NU to back up my point: the trendy mixed use, the cutesy trolley, etc etc–but without taking down the freeway, no inclusionary housing, no support for busing, etc. etc. In addition, I didn’t say that’s what the NU was mostly about. I said that’s a pretty weak environmental strategy. We could argue about whether the actual implementation of NU is comprehensive or piecemeal. And we could argue about whether it’s really the NU’s faulty that, by the time their vision reaches implementation, it’s stripped down to cute trolley, mixed use, but forget the inclusionary housing, gas price floor, carbon tax, parking charges, etc etc etc.

  6. I hope new urbanism doesn’t drown out discussion on more effective environmental interventions like carbon taxes used to pay for something good, raising the fuel efficiency of motor vehicles, and renewable portfolio standards for electricity. I’d like to think that parking charges are now a part of new urbanist thought.

    One of the things that motivated me to get into planning was that it seemed that environmentlists understood the need to green electricity and clean up cars, but outside of a narrow circle of academics, there seemed to be remarkably little public discussion about how built environments can effect transportation distances, modes, and energy use.

    All of this stuff tends to be a tough sell with the public though.

  7. I read Jacobs last fall because I taught her. Lisa’s take is basically correct, she didn’t like planners (which again, is different from not liking planning). After all, Robert Moses was the mother of all planners.

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