If you dabble in urbanism even a little bit, you know who Jane Jacobs is. I write this with conviction, because I only dabble in urbanism a little bit, and I know who Jane Jacobs is. But for most of us — or at least for me — the actual outlines of who Jane Jacobs is and what her legacy means are fairly vague. I know her as the opposite number to Robert Moses, which is to say that she’s The Good Guy opposite his mustache-twirling central planning baddie in the battle for the soul of New York City’s built environment. (Incidentally, I’m getting ready to start reading Roberta Brandes Gratz’s Battle For Gotham, which is about that conflict and might deepen that understanding somewhat) It helps, from the perspective of my own biases, that Jacobs’ ideal city looks a lot like mine and includes the very same built-in, human-scale efficiencies that David Owen argues ensure NYC’s unexpected and near-unprecedented greenness. (Peter Dreier of the National Housing Institute provides a neat overview of Jacobs’ beliefs and extraordinary life here) I’m not sure what kind of personal relationship I would’ve had with the relentlessly feisty, contrary and contentious Jacobs — since she passed in 2006, I’ll just assume we would’ve gotten drinks every Tuesday and gone to Mets games together, or something — but I do know what kind of relationship I have with her ideas. It’s a cordial one. A more complicated question, though, would be how Jacobs feels about the state of green building in New York City circa now.
Jacobs wasn’t much for mega-projects, which made itself felt most famously in her (successful) opposition to Robert Moses’ attempts to turn Fifth Avenue into a major arterial and open a highway that would’ve sped drivers through lower Manhattan, but also manifested in her resistance to better-conceived developments such as Lincoln Center. Jacobs was, on the other hand, generally all for community-driven initiatives. While this enables us to divide recent gbNYC stories up into things Jacobs would or would not have liked — she would’ve loathed Brooklyn’s loathsome New Domino development; she presumably would’ve loved Long Island City’s privately conceived, funded and executed quasi-homesteady Brooklyn Grange farm (which just recently had its ribbon-cutting ceremony) — it doesn’t really do us much good in terms of helping us to understand contemporary Manhattan as Jacobs might have. And that understanding becomes doubly difficult when we consider just how much of what’s happening in New York’s green scene is the result of incentives designed by one of Jacobs’ other bugaboos: the state.
As easy as it is to cheer community board-centered people power when it makes itself felt — through Brooklyn’s Community Board 1 exacting concessions from New Domino that make it marginally less loathsome to the Upper West Siders demanding that Extell green up and scale down its sprawling Riverside Center mega-development — it’s an uncomfortable truth that most of what’s interesting in green building in NYC is coming from the state. Thus CUNY’s new green building management program, brought to you by the ultimate central planner, the U.S. Department of Energy. Thus the promising New York Solar Industry Development and Jobs Act, brought to you by what is surely the single most ineffective locus of central planning in the entire freaking world, your New York State government. And thus, too, such recent NYC mega-projects as the South Bronx Greenway and The Brook, Bronx’s LEED-certified and (partially) city-funded affordable housing development. These aren’t the sort of Oppressive Concrete Mega-Projects that Jacobs raised hell about back in the day, but they’re very much a product of top-down incentives and planning, albeit of a much more sophisticated and progressive sort than that embodied by Moses or Le Corbusier. Even the booming, bustling, expanding High Line, which is surely one of Manhattan’s biggest urban planning success stories in recent years and a prime example of productive interaction between state actors and community interests like Friends of the High Line, was advanced by some of the most well-heeled community activists ever seen (as well as the deep-pocketed developers who have built and profited from the High Line-adjacent bumper crop of luxury condominium and retail development, and essentially remade Chelsea as a high-end neighborhood in the process)
Does it matter what Jane Jacobs would think about all this? Whether she’d recognize anything of the city she describes and celebrates and excoriates in The Death and Life of Great American Cities in this New York City? In terms of your commute, or the price of your apartment, or your property taxes, the answer is probably no. In terms of understanding the city in which we live, though, it might. Jacobs’ manichean view of the struggle between Communities and Power may be dated in the sense that the conflict doesn’t take the shape that it once did — they don’t necessarily get to write the laws, but it’s not tough to argue that NYC’s mega-developers currently wield nearly as much power than city government, and occasionally wield said power through the city government — but the conflict between big and small interests and big and small development are enduring, and endure still. As long as the city charter retains New York’s byzantine building bureaucracy and vests so much power in the community boards, too, the dynamic tension between the developers and (for lack of a better term) the developed will remain much the same — just as dynamic, just as tense. It’s telling that, all these years later, Jacobs’ ideas still have the power to elicit snarky, peevish editorials from real estate developers in the Wall Street Journal. And it’s telling, too, that the organic, community-driven urbanism that Jacobs so prized in 1961 is still so close to the sustainable NYC ideal nearly 50 years later. Whether a given project or development is on Jacobs’ side, or whether Jacobs would be on its side, seems less significant than the fact that, all these years after The Death and Life of Great American Cities, we are still having essentially the same life-and-death argument about the relative sustainability, livability and viability of New York City.