We continue this week’s celebration of the Jane Jacobs centennial (she was born on May 4, 1916, in Scranton, PA.) with the second of our three conversations with leading urbanists. Today I talk with Andres Duany. Planner, spiritual godfather of the New Urbanism, and architectural gadfly, Duany is also the author (along with Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck) of an influential polemic of his own, Suburban Nation, published in 2000. While Duany and the New Urbanists have long embraced much of the Jacobs ethos, he now believes that the public process—the bottom-up model espoused by her—needs rebalancing, given the urgent problems posed by climate change.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AD: Andres Duany
I read that Death & Life is one of the books that you periodically reread. Do you remember the first time you read it? Where were you at the time?
I can be precise about that: In 1970, as a class assignment. The Princeton education under Robert Geddes was particularly interesting at that time. Many of the professors were from the U.K., people like Kenneth Frampton, Anthony Eardley and Neville Epstein. They didn’t have a Robert Moses, but they did have the top-down New Towns program. These were then just beginning to be questioned and for the same reason that Moses was here. Death and Life was assigned as a critique. Educationally it was a great moment: being presented with the wonders of Team 10 and also Jacobs’ compelling argument for the opposite.
All that modernist urbanism failed on both sides of the Atlantic. It was a tremendous intellectual crisis because of the extent of the social meltdown and because absolute power of design and implementation had been granted to the planners. With the advent of Michael Graves at Princeton, the conclusion drawn by the architectural intelligentsia was, well…if architecture couldn’t affect society, it should desist from the attempt and get on with the art of it. The Postmodernist discourse was to be self-referential—proposing an “autonomous architecture.” But what they should have concluded instead is that urbanism can affect society—to such an extent that it was able to transform viable communities to self-destruction. A vital neighborhood, however poor, with its small shops and workable social relationships, when re-housed in one of the Team 10 concoctions would, within a few years, implode socially. Jacobs correctly presented the case for the incredible power of design. Graves’ Postmodernists and the Decons later withdrew into symbolizing the situations—“critical discourse”—rather than trying to heal them as the New Urbanists do today.
Now why did they draw this “other” conclusion?
Because it salvaged their credibility. Like all avant-gardes, they were able to say. as Loos put it, “Oh! Don’t look at that old thing. This is what we do now!” The profession eventually moved on to a Jacobs-based urbanism, but the degree of power that had been granted that generation of planners has never been restored. The New Urbanists must now constantly prove that we’re not the guilty party. That is why we deploy both the principles and the process of participation from Jane Jacobs. This does work—but it’s inefficient. Now that we confront, as Gideon described as, “the problem of large numbers”—a balance is necessary.
This process of participation was a Jacobs legacy.
Yes. It was also a punishment for that generation of planners betraying the trust that had been granted to them. You know, when guys in WWII crew cuts and Title I millions would show up in a neighborhood, wave their confident hand and just say, “Demolish all this!”—folks would salute and do it. Amazing. Once in St. Louis I had the opportunity to meet some of the original victims. They described it as, “When the bulldozers arrived, it was like an invasion from Mars.” In memory of that experience they called our planning team “The Force”—a snide allusion to the more extraterrestrial power and weirdness of Star Wars.
You were initially reluctant to talk about Jane Jacobs. Why?
I hesitated because her legacy at this point is a matter of scholarship. She’s no longer a subject of hearsay or opinion. Jacobs wrote seven books. Death & Life was just one of them. Most of them are quite relevant today. The scope of her contribution is much greater than the urban details of Death & Life. These books are beautifully written and succinct, amounting to an ethical philosophy of a practical nature. It’s an injustice to her life’s work—particularly as we are celebrating her 100th anniversary—to pin her to one book. I have colleagues who operate from the knowledge of all the books. I am not one of them. I would recommend that you interview David Brain and Bruce Donnelly and at the very least, one should be aware of Kenneth Jackson’s and Hilary Ballon’s rehabilitation of Moses. And for both intertwined, there’s Anthony Flint’s fascinating and fair biography.
When was the last time you read Death & Life?
Probably five or six years ago. By now I have assimilated Death & Life and I practice it professionally. I have looked at some of her other books more recently. Dark Age Ahead is prescient. But as we begin to understand this 21st century of limits and instability, the other books should be foregrounded.
At a certain point, Jacobs’ ideas were co-opted and misinterpreted, often by real estate developers. Why did that happen?
Certainly; and they’ve been abused by cynical or incompetent planners and designers. But there are two parts to Death and Life: the details of how to foster an urbanism that leads to neighborliness and the community process that kept Moses from vandalizing her neighborhood. You do need bottom-up consultation for the smaller scale—which is the Jacobs proposition—but today you also need top-down decisions for large-scale infrastructures. We need both Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses. For example, at the regional scale, to lay a high power line from a new solar field to an existing city, or to establish a route for rapid transit from a downtown to the airport. These should be top-down decisions, a la Moses. Consulting everyone along those trajectories will predictably yield, “not-in-my-backyard.” In Miami a decade ago the transit line between downtown and the airport—which had no alternative option—required hundreds of public meetings. In the end, the response was still a N-O. So the officials eventually had to confront the absurdity and vote to go ahead anyway. That public process was run on a Jacobs basis, when it should have been run on a Moses basis. In Birmingham, Michigan, a fourteen-mile bikeway was delayed for years by a few households whose backyards were impacted.
Planning is now contaminated by Jacobean hesitators, skeptical of change, and the abusive mega-projects that can be built only by a Moses imposition. We must have a declension of approaches, from Moses to Jacobs.
Is there a sweet spot between genuine public input and good planning? Is that even possible?
Yes—depending on the issue at hand. A protocol currently being developed by the New Urbanists is subsidiarity—the process of empowering the most local level at which a decision can competently be made. First you convene to discuss who is appropriate to decide. Then you convene that group to decide. Let’s take on-street parking as an example. That issue is a perennial problem unless decided at the street-frontage. Or here in Miami, people are residually rustic and happen to be fond of chickens. But the elected officials have banned them citywide. Why? Because condominiums shouldn’t have chickens. But…what of the big yards that could have chickens? That oppressive decision was taken at too high a level. The chicken issue should be decided at the level of each block.
The theory of subsidiarity in our new public process will graph out the various possible levels capable of deciding: the most local is the household, then the block, the street, the institution, the neighborhood, the city, the county, the state, the region, the United States, and even the United Nations. Those are set along one axis.
On the other axis, we list the issues in question. Where a port is to be built, for example—that is decided at the level of the state. Where a high school is built is at the level of the city. An elementary school would be at the level of the neighborhood (and not shoved elsewhere by the complaints of the immediate neighbor). The impediment to getting things done efficiently, and the typically low grade of discussion, and the questionable outcomes are the result of an issue being discussed at the wrong level of subsidiarity. It is a perversion from the Jacobs legacy to have all decisions always driven by individual neighbors.
Although in the long sweep of history, it seems Jane Jacobs was a lot more right than Robert Moses.
Regarding characteristics of a human urban pattern—but not always about the process of getting there, particularly so in the 21st century. Today it’s not just about highways. Alternative energy requires new power lines and cities need transit lines. With the Jacobean process we’re not getting those in time to affect climate change mitigation. In China, they can build a wind farm before an application can be filed in California. The public process as currently understood is not commensurate with the urgency. On the other hand, those hundreds of new Chinese cities are brutal. Their urban design could use a Jacobs process! So, yes, you do need Moses as well as Jacobs for the 21st century. And, if we fail to address climate change on a worldwide basis, we will need more of Jacobs’ smaller communities deciding about chickens, block by block.