Citizen Jane: Battle for the City

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“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody only because, and only when, they are created by everybody”.

There are different ways to design places… but who decides what they look like, how they function and who they are for? Set against today’s exponential city growth the recent screening of ‘Citizen Jane…’ (BBC4, August 2017) highlighted a need to think about the sorts of places we are creating by reflecting on opposing approaches to America’s post war development.

Alternative approaches

Robert Moses’s modernist vision of ‘progressive improvement’ through urban renewal programmes, slum clearance, housing projects and expressways tore apart existing communities. Conversely, Jane Jacobs challenged perceived wisdom, advocated walkability, diversity and complexity, and her 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities provided an alternative theory that enabled people to speak about matters affecting them. Summarised divergent approaches are:

 

ROBERT MOSES – ‘top down’ JANE JACOBS – ‘bottom up’
Imposed, domineering Observed, inclusive
External professional Lived experience
Clean slate; fresh start Work with existing assets
Physical objects; rearranged social relations Traditional values; street life
High level overview Street level
Clearance, programmes and projects Public realm
Shielded and insulated from (political) criticism Local action
Rational, functional order; zoned land uses Diversity 24/7, complexity, multiple connections
Vehicle priority Walkable neighbourhoods

 

Activism

Local activism overturned Moses’s proposals for Washington Square, the West Village and Lower Manhattan Expressway, and Jacobs spoke of a need to speak out as “it is wicked to be a victim”.

Projects which provided “easy, fast money” led to extreme social problems: the Cross-Bronx expressway divided communities; large scale housing projects failed and were demolished.

Today’s scale and speed of urbanisation is shaping the lives of future generations; will extensive highways, isolated tower blocks and poor public realm become the slums of tomorrow, consigning people to life without hope?

Available on BBC iPlayer until 6 September 2017.

Image (Detail) Chanan Greenblatt (Unsplash.com)

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