The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Jane Jacobs — America’s First NIMBYist

Residents gather in Salt Lake City’s East Central neighborhood for a “Jane’s Walk” in 2008.  Jane’s Walks have grown over the last several years as neighborhood tours that extol the virtues of neighborhoods.  Source: eastcentralcc.org

Last week the world celebrated the 100th anniversary of Jane Jacobs’ birth.  You probably know Jacobs as the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities and the leader of a pitched battle between her and her Greenwich Village neighbors against New York City planner/master builder Robert Moses.  You probably also know she’s revered somewhat as the patron saint of cities by many urbanists today.  Her theories and views did indeed cause a tectonic shift in mid-century urban planning that still resonates today.

However, I’m rethinking Jacobs’ role in cities and urban planning.  I’m doing so not because she did anything wrong, but because of how our nation understood and implemented her message.  Jane Jacobs could be considered the nation’s first successful NIMBYist.

Jacobs famously stood up to uber-builder Robert Moses by powerfully demonstrating the value of great city neighborhoods.  She meticulously documented how they functioned, in ways that many mid-century planners either glossed over or flat-out missed.  She used her platform as a writer for Architectural Forum to articulate how urban renewal projects were changing the very nature and character of urban neighborhoods.  She was able to influence other thought leaders like Lewis Mumford, who joined her cause.  In essence, she showed not only what was worth saving, but why.

But here’s where my reconsideration of Jacobs occurs.  She found a way to brink back our appreciation of cities.  But she also laid the groundwork for the kind of NIMBYism that prevents cities from making virtually any step forward.

Let’s be clear.  I’m not about to propose any Robert Moses-style remaking of any city.  I do believe that the clearance-and-rebuild strategy that dominated that era was wrong, and it was particularly damaging to the minority neighborhoods that had little political clout to influence the outcome.  I’ve writtten about this, and it’s true many minority neighborhoods were done in by urban renewal within a generation of being settled.  But my point is that Jacobs was so successful in her challenge to save her neighborhood that it’s become the model for similar stances, even if what’s proposed for saving lacks any of the value of Jacobs’ revered Greenwich Village.

She gave NIMBYism the moral high ground and others seized it.

As with many thoughts I have I realize I wasn’t the first to have it.  Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute wrote about this very point seven years ago:

“Jacobs was the the progenitor of a new elite consensus to rival the grand urban-renewal designs of modernism. She argued that “organic” neighborhoods with many “eyes on the street” would, over time, “unslum” themselves through neighbors’ actions and decisions. Moses thought that expert guidance and planning could create an environment that fostered enjoyment and fulfillment. Jacobs demurred: “To approach a city or even a city neighborhood as if it were capable of being given order by converting it into a disciplined work of art is to make the mistake of substituting art for life.” Her struggle, then, was not just about neighborhood preservation; it pitted individualism and liberty against regimentation imposed by a benevolent despot.

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.”

Sadly, I think Jacobs’ message has been diluted, even perverted, to serve the narrow interests of residents seeking to protect a way of life in cities.  Jacobs’ message somehow shifted from a build-more-like-this, positive narrative to a negative do-not-disturb-at-any-costs invective.

There’s a simple way to gauge this.  Has there been more new development built over the last 30-40 years that invoke Jane Jacobs’ memory, or has her name been used more often to stop presumably bad things from happening?

We, as American society, are to blame for this.  We often take any complex and nuance theory or message and reduce it to its lowest common denominator.  In Jacobs’ case, the fight-City-Hall message prevailed for a few decades after publication of The Death and Life, until New Urbanists sought ways to implement the practices Jacobs highlights.  But this is still a problem.  I’m reminded of developers who slap a front porch on a subdivision home model and place it maybe 10 feet closer to the street, and then say the subdivision qualifies as a New Urbanist development.

No, it doesn’t.

City planners bear much of the blame as well, if not the bulk of it.  There’s no doubt that Jane Jacobs made planners question our understanding of neighborhoods, and showed us intrinsic values we didn’t know existed.  This was supposedly a revelatory moment for the profession.  However, if we are extolling the virtues of great city neighborhoods, are we doing enough to create more of them?  Are we doing enough to make the ones we have better?  Are we doing the work to convince today’s Mosesian influences — transportation engineers and planners, members of the suburban lobby like many real estate developers, the financial community that holds on to outdated investment models, and elected officials — that there is a better way to build and serve communities?

I really hope that we as a nation can get rid of this reductive impulse.  We have all the knowledge we need to address all the challenges before us, but only if we consider all of it.

3 Responses to “Jane Jacobs — America’s First NIMBYist”

  1. silverpatronus

    As a transportation engineer and planner, I'm slightly offended to be referred to as 'Mosesian'…lol. Hardly. Me and most of the my colleagues are Jacobs devotees, trying to fit our work into the ballet.

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  2. Jamie Pitts

    You make many good points but I believe that the title should reflect the core sentiment of the article: \”Sadly, I think Jacobs' message has been diluted, even perverted, to serve the narrow interests of residents seeking to protect a way of life in cities. Jacobs' message somehow shifted from a build-more-like-this, positive narrative to a negative do-not-disturb-at-any-costs invective.\”

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