Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 13 / 29 March 2018

A city-dweller's manifesto

Out There

Great grass-roots urban activist Jane Jacobs, from Citizen Jane: Battle for the City.
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Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, a documentary directed by Matt Tyrnauer now in theaters, is a good primer on the life of urban activist Jane Jacobs, author of The Death and Life of American Cities (1961). Jacobs was key in developing grass-roots opposition to neighborhood-destroying "urban renewal" in midcentury NYC. Her arch-nemesis was the powerful "master builder" Robert Moses.

Moses was responsible for the construction of critical infrastructure in New York, including some mighty bridges and tunnels. But he didn't know when to stop, and his megalomaniacal plans for giant highways crisscrossing Manhattan would have destroyed Greenwich Village, SoHo, Little Italy and TriBeCa, the way his earlier projects decimated the South Bronx and East Harlem. Jacobs mobilized citizen support to protect what was left of the urban fabric, and thereby saved the soul of a great city.

There's very little in Tyrnauer's film that any student of city planning or urban studies doesn't already know, but the basic precepts of Jacobs' thinking are certainly relevant for our times and our city. Here's Out There's take:

City planning should be about people, not about buildings. You don't start with the blueprint, you start with the existing street life, and plan out from there. Buildings that turn their backs to street life at ground level are poisonous to cities. Streets and sidewalks only become safe spaces when there are "eyes on the street," an intimate interplay between public and private spaces. Blank walls and parking garages do not supply this.

Great cities are for everybody, not just for the rich and powerful. A great urban fabric is characterized by diversity: all kinds of people and activity, the mixed use of public space. You needn't be a consumer to be a good citizen. A city's parks and public spaces should not be privatized for the exclusive use of the wealthy. Every time Yerba Buena Gardens or Civic Center is closed off to host a private party for Oracle shareholders, Out There seethes inside.

Single-passenger-use cars are the enemy of life in the cities. Pedestrians, cyclists, skateboarders, public-transit users, and carpoolers: all are kinder to public life than carbon-spewers speeding along in their private bubbles. Who best experiences urban life? It sure ain't the fat cat in the Uber.

Perspicacious pal Pepi has a brilliant idea in response to mooks who like to drive by leaning on their car horns. Automobile manufacturers should be required to install a speaker inside their cars so that hoggy honkers can hear the level of noise pollution they're making. Amplified.

Urban development in China today is like Robert Moses on steroids. In the 21st century we're seeing all of the mistakes of 20th-century modernism play out in the booming new cities of Asia, except that the scale of construction is exponentially greater. Societies have to make their own mistakes? But there's always the possibility of education, and redemption.

Cities change, that's what makes a city. But Jane Jacobs would insist we can manage the change. Be skeptical of the experts. Goals of enlightened urban planning are about more than making real estate developers, and the politicians who enable them, wealthy. Bay Area citizens, take back your cities! You have nothing to lose but your traffic jams.


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