April 14, 2016

A Tale of Two Planners: Jane Jacobs vs. Robert Moses

Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs (Library of Congress/Prints & Photographs Division/LC-DIG-ppmsca-24382; New York Public Library Digital Collections; Library of Congress/Prints & Photographs Division/LC-USZ-62-137839)

Library of Congress/Prints & Photographs Division/LC-DIG-ppmsca-24382; New York Public Library Digital Collections; Library of Congress/Prints & Photographs Division/LC-USZ-62-137839

If you’re in the mood for a good David and Goliath-type story, take a seat.

It’s the early 1960s in New York City’s West Village. Years earlier, master builder Robert Moses, a formidable urban planner and the longtime New York City Parks Commissioner, had proposed a new highway that would run down Broome Street. The Lower Manhattan Expressway was to be a 10-lane elevated highway that would cut through SoHo and Little Italy, destroying Washington Square Park, demolishing numerous buildings, and displacing thousands of families and businesses. The plans had been delayed for several years but were picking up steam again.

In response, a coalition of council members, business owners, and local activists joined forces to fight the plan. Among the protestors was Jane Jacobs, a journalist, a mother with young children, and a resident of the West Village. She was vehemently opposed to the expressway and organized protests and rallies in her community. She became the chairman of the Joint Committee to Stop the Lower Manhattan Expressway. She was even arrested in 1968, accused of starting a riot at a public hearing.

But she and her fellow protestors were ultimately successful. The plan was scrapped, and the underdog won. David defeated Goliath.

It was an epic battle, and one that crystallizes the wildly different approaches to urban planning taken by two people who became legendary figures in the field.

“[Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs] kind of circled around each other like tigers in a cage,” says Anthony Flint, a fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and author of Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York's Master Builder and Transformed the American City (Random House 2009). “They were just extraordinary adversaries.”

Washington Square Park

photo by: Jorge Quinteros/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Washington Square Park in New York City was threatened by Robert Moses' plan for the Lower Manhattan Expressway

Let’s take a look:

In this urban theory boxing ring, we have, in one corner, Robert Moses, a larger-than-life personality with endless drive and ambition and a remarkable ability to navigate backroom politics. “He was a go-getter from the beginning,” Flint says.

Moses was born in New Haven, Connecticut, moved to New York City as a child, and was educated at Yale, Oxford, and Columbia University. He held the position of New York City Parks Commissioner from 1934 to 1960. Though he never held an elected office (he ran for governor of New York in 1934, but lost), at one point in his career, he held down twelve different appointed positions at once.

Moses had big ideas for what New York City could and should be, and he knew what it took to bring his visions to life. True, the adjectives people have used to describe Moses are generally less than flattering: He was a bully, a dictator, a tyrant. But the so-called “master builder” used his muscle and might to transform New York City, building numerous highways, bridges, tunnels, public housing units, playgrounds, and parks.

Then in the other corner, there’s Jane Jacobs. She was a bespectacled, bicycling journalist and activist, who went on to write one of the most influential books in urban planning. Born in Scranton, Pennsylvania, she moved to New York City in 1935 and eventually made her home in Greenwich Village with her husband and children. She worked for a time as a stenographer and freelance writer, and later was named the associate editor of Architectural Forum.

In 1961, she published her seminal book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she challenged the short-sightedness of modern urban planning and used her own observations and experiences to conclude what makes a good, safe, livable, desirable neighborhood: smart growth, mixed-use facilities, small city blocks, transit-oriented planning, sufficient density of people and buildings, and a mix of old and new buildings.

Jacobs was openly critical of top-down approaches to urban planning, where major decisions are made by a select few people behind closed doors. Instead, she favored more citizen participation, where residents of a neighborhood had a say in their city’s future. “Government and developers are now listening to the people,” Flint says. “We have Jane Jacobs to thank for that.”

For all their differences, these two urban planning heavyweights shared one key characteristic: They both wanted a better city.

If the two sound as different as night and day, that’s because, in many ways, they were. Jacobs didn’t have a college degree or any formal urban planning training; Moses was an Ivy Leaguer with a Ph.D. in political science. Jacobs hated the top-down, backdoor approaches to city planning—the very approaches that Moses so readily employed. Jacobs fought for the people and, specifically, for the pedestrians; Moses, it was said, favored automobiles over people. And in many cases, his plans completely displaced people.

It’s a dynamic that has captured the public imagination. Last month saw the debut of A Marvelous Order, a much-heralded opera about Jacobs and Moses and the battle over lower Manhattan in the 1960s.

And at the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Heinz Architectural Center, HACLab Pittsburgh: Imagining the Modern is an experimental exhibition on display through May 2, which looks at the postwar architecture and urbanization in Pittsburgh. The exhibit details, in part, how the Pittsburgh Regional Planning Association hired Robert Moses to solve problems related to the traffic congestion around the city’s downtown in 1939. His proposal, the “Arterial Plan for Pittsburgh,” led to the Penn-Lincoln Parkway, the Crosstown Boulevard, and the Point State Park. It set the stage for future development in the city.

More than two decades later, the University of Pittsburgh invited Jane Jacobs to consult in the city. She was taken on a driving tour of the city’s renewal projects and declared: “Pittsburgh is being rebuilt by city haters.”

But for all their differences, these two urban planning heavyweights shared one key characteristic: They both wanted a better city. For Jacobs, that meant human-scale neighborhoods, where community members played an active role in shaping their environment. For Moses, that meant having strong infrastructure and a plan for density.

“Moses realized the importance of infrastructure and of planning at a regional scale. And he was able to navigate the bureaucracies, particularly with fundraising,” Flint says. “Jacobs was the spokesperson for the human-scale neighborhood and for remembering how people actually function in urban environments. They brought different things to the table. But they had the future of the city very much at heart.”

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Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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