Here is a video interview, produced by Active Living Network, with famed author and social activist Jane Jacobs. In 1961, Jacobs published The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a bold response to the city planning strategies of her time and the proposals by planners such as Robert Moses. She used her real-world experiences and observations from her own street in the West Village of New York City to comment on how people interacted in neighborhoods – which areas were busiest, safest and most conducive to living. In this video, Jacobs gives insight into how cities can bounce back from the environment created by the automobile through simple and affordable means such as “tree planting, traffic taming and community events”.
Read on for more after the break.
Jane Jacobs’ political and social struggle with Robert Moses was prominent at the time. Moses streamed forward with large scale projects, razing neighborhoods to make way for highways and expressways all over New York City. Cross Bronx Expressway near West Farms Square/East Tremont and the Bruckner Expressway near Hunts Point in the Bronx are fine examples of the social biases associated with Moses’ planning. Both areas had a low-income population and were subjected to relocation based on giving more to automobile industry. Jacobs opposed not only the Moses’ disinterest in the people of the neighborhoods, but the fundamental changes that large-scale roadways brought to neighborhoods.
She proposed, both in her book and in this video, that the automobile and its infrastructure made cities unsafe. As with Cross Bronx Expy and the Bruckner Expy, these projects divided neighborhoods, extinguished their social characteristics, made street-life less accessible by creating dangerous intersections and created a lack of social infrastructure such as local and accessible markets and shops. We see the social and health effects of it today. We have become a lazier culture overall and that is reflected in studies on obesity – studies that do not just address the foods we consume but our activity levels as well. Unsafe streets means more people will opt-out of walking and would rather drive or stay home and this attitude to the city and these habits get passed on from generation to generation until we arrive at the kind of culture we have today.
At the time of publishing, Jacobs’ thoughts, though quite clear, were rejected by many leading planners. She was untrained as a planner and relied on her observations, personal interviews and experiences. Lewis Mumford, historian, sociologist and author of The City in History, criticized her book in an article for the New Yorker called, “Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies”. Her ongoing struggle with Robert Moses was discussed in Anthony Flint’s book, Wrestling with Moses. Jacob rallied communities to oppose his efforts. We can thank her for preserving Washington Square Park, which would have become a wide thoroughfare, the south-bound extension of Fifth Ave, had Moses gotten his way.
Times have changed and many leaders of the new generation have noticed the detrimental effects that building cities on the backbone of the automotive industry has produced. It was profitable for a time, but now that profit is redeemed as a burden. Film documentary, The End of Suburbia, touches on the asphalt landscape we’ve created through the culture of sprawl in our suburbs and how that has made us increasingly dependent on the automobile. Today we look for solutions for a new type of living, whether it’s the D.I.Y. Urbanism proposed by MVRDV in the Netherlands, or local community-based organizations that take matters into their own hands, like Better Block by Jason Roberts.
Jane Jacobs emphasizes the ease with which we can make cities thrive. Small steps that communities and neighborhoods can address with local representatives can do great things to make a city healthier. She discusses what parks can do to create areas for recreational activities, what traffic taming can do for the walking and bicycling community and how to make these places dignified.