What Would Jane Jacobs Say?

Fifty years ago the late Jane Jacobs rocked the planning and architecture world with her book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.”

Jacobs advocated for a new method of urban planning grounded in citizen participation and community control. She opposed plans to carve out tenement neighborhoods for the construction of high-rise developments and expressways. She was also a champion of what she called the “sidewalk ballet” of the wonderful kismet and happenstance that can occur on New York City streets. But in some ways, her work also fueled the gentrification of some urban areas, displacing the people and the businesses that created the diversity that originally drew Jacobs to the city in the first place.

This week, Modern Library is publishing a silver anniversary re-issue of “The Death and Life of Great American Cities,” complete with a new introduction of Jason Epstein, the book’s original editor. To honor the occasion, MetroFocus looked at some of the contemporary local players in the world of urban planning through the lens of the late Jane Jacobs:

Janette Sadik-Khan, New York City Department of Transportation Commissioner

Since Sadik-Kahn took the job mid-way through 2007, she’s added more than 250 miles of bicycle lanes, cut parking spots across the city and transformed parts of busy Manhattan streets into pedestrian plazas. For years, Khan tried to convince city officials that a bike-sharing program would improve New York’s streets and this week, the city chose a private company to operate the new program.

On the Jane Jacobs’ scale: Her accomplishments are impressive (read what New York Times‘ columnist Frank Bruni has to say) and like Jacobs, she’s committed to a walkable city. Jacobs herself might even have joined Sadik-Khan for a bicycle ride if she were here today. But it may have been a quick cruise — even Mayor Michael Bloomberg nudged the commissioner to solicit more input from residents (a key tenet of Jacobs’ vision) and to tone down her aggressive approach to implementing projects.

WATCH VIDEO: Streetfilms Presents: a Conversation With Janette Sadik-Khan


Amanda Burden, Chair of the New York City Planning Commission

Vanity Fair pegged Burden as the rezoning czar. Since 2002, Burden has overseen the city’s largest rezoning efforts since the initial publication of Jacobs’ book in 1961. Working hand-in-hand with Mayor Michael Bloomberg, she rezoned one-fifth of the city’s land. That’s 8,400 blocks. Mystified by zoning? In short, zoning laws determine how the land is used — it regulates the size of buildings and where they are located. Burden also spearheaded the master redesign plans for the East River Waterfront in Lower Manhattan, Downtown Brooklyn and the Hudson Yards, among others.

On the Jane Jacobs’ scale: Well, there aren’t many similarities aside from the shared field of urban planning. On the face of it, many of Burden’s initiatives would have pleased Jacobs because they sought to create mixed-use neighborhoods. However, like Sadik-Khan, Burden has been criticized for not getting enough community input on these development projects. Burden’s critics are also quick to point out that most of the major rezonings have displaced local manufacturers, ushered in big-box retailers and sped up the process of gentrification in many parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan.

WATCH VIDEO: Amanda Burden received the 2011 American Architectural Foundation Keystone Award.

Daniel Goldstein, resident and activist in Brooklyn

Goldstein fought to stop the construction of the Atlantic Yards project, the largest redevelopment plan in recent New York history. The project was a perfect storm of private sector might and political will. In 2003, developer Forest City Ratner announced his plan to buy the Nets, move the team to Brooklyn and build a $2.5 billion development in the Prospect Heights section of Brooklyn.

On the Jane Jacobs’ scale: The similarities between Jacobs and Goldstein are easy to spot, though he does not share her taste in large black spectacles and bangs. Goldstein rallied his neighbors against a powerful developer that used eminent domain to seize private property, staged protests and kept a detailed blog about the Atlantic Yards Project. Similarly, Jacobs led a grassroots campaign in the early ’60s to nix Robert Moses’ plan to build a highway that cut through Lower Manhattan. However, in her case, the battle was won. Goldstein’s story is chronicled in “The Battle for Brooklyn,” a new documentary by Suki Hawley and Michael Galinsky.

WATCH VIDEO: Trailer, “The Battle for Brooklyn”

Joshua David and Robert Hammond, co-founders of Friends of the High Line

In 1999, David, a freelance writer in Chelsea, and Hammond, an artist living in Greenwich Village, formed a nonprofit organization called Friends of the High line to preserve and transform an abandoned, elevated railway into a vital public space. It took nearly a decade of advocacy, including endlessly pitching their project to potential foundations and city officials, but now the High Line is open for public use. The aerial greenway runs from Gansevoort Street to West 34th Street. Today, Friends of the High Line works directly with the Parks Department to manage and program the public space.

On the Jane Jacobs’ scale: Jacobs would have admired their creative rehabilitation of the existing infrastructure, as well as their efforts to expand public space to city residents. Last year, David and Hammond were awarded the Rockefeller Foundation’s Jane Jacobs Medal. Each year, the foundation awards the medal to a recipients whose work “creates new ways of seeing and understanding New York City… and creatively uses the urban environment to make New York City a place of hope and expectation.”  Yet she may have been skeptical of the public-private partnership model, a city management strategy that became popular towards the end of her time in New York.

WATCH VIDEO: A History of the High Line Park, courtesy of Friends of the High Line

Damaris Reyes, Executive Director of Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES)

Reyes, a third generation public housing resident, started her work as a community organizer in the Lower East Side. Today, she’s still in neighborhood, but as the director of GOLES, a 30-year-old community based organization dedicated to “building the power of low-income residents to address displacement and gentrification.”

On the Jane Jacobs’ scale: Jacobs insisted that cities can only survive if they support economically diverse neighborhoods. If it weren’t for the preservation of public housing, many low-income New Yorkers would have been priced out of the city decades ago. Reyes received a Jane Jacobs medal in 2009 for her advocacy work in defending tenants’ rights and preserving affordable housing.

WATCH VIDEO: 2009 Jane Jacobs Medal Winners

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