The development of cities has historically been a slow-moving process. In the everchanging urban landscape that faces the pushes and pulls of a variety of social, economic, and financial factors, it’s been hard to pinpoint just one main reason over another why each city has evolved over time into the way that we experience it today. And as designers and planners speculate about what the future of our cities should be, sometimes the reason that our cities look and operate in the way that they do has come down to a few famous battles between individuals with competing schools of thought.
The cities we walk down, the parks we lounge in, the educational campuses we visit, and even the streets we drive on, are by no accident. Their design and reasoning are derived from a multitude of principles that have been carefully vetted by people whose goal is to ensure that cities are inhabitable for all. Sometimes, those people are met with opposition, and dedicate their lives to ensuring that their points of view triumph, and leave lasting impacts for centuries. One of those famous battles between urban idealists was between Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses and their vision for the future of New York City.
New York City in the 1950s was experiencing a boom of change. New roads, highways, housing towers, and public parks were being designed and springing up all over the city. While many welcomed this new development, Moses and Jacobs had major disagreements on how it should continue. While Moses sought to destroy and rebuild much of New York City, Jacobs believed in preserving its streets, sense of urbanism, and vibrant cultural lifeblood. One of the sites that were rapidly changing was Washington Square Park, which anchored the surrounding neighborhoods and offers 10 acres of open, green space. Robert Moses strongly believed that this public amenity should be turned into a four-lane highway that not only came with the park’s destruction but would also destroy 416 buildings that housed 2,200 families, 365 retail stores, and 480 commercial establishments in SoHo and Little Italy.
Upon hearing of these plans, Jane Jacobs began a grassroots movement to save the existing neighborhoods, and prevent this Lower Manhattan Expressway, or the LOMEX, from being constructed. By writing her manifestos, taking to the streets to garner support from the masses, and even having City Hall contacts working in her favor to notify her of when Moses planned to have last-minute public hearings, Jacobs’ coalition was willing to do anything to prevent this monolithic road from taking over the neighborhoods they loved.
Strangely enough, the two only met in person once, and even rarely acknowledged the other’s existence, relying on dismissal of their support groups and ideologies as a whole in their attempts to ensure that the other never had their way. It’s quite obvious who won, and their David and Goliath-like relationship became a rather famous tale and an instrument for those who promote community engagement as a way to bring about, or in this case prevent, change.
Aside from Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses, and even the battle that resulted in the New York City we know and experience today, other city planners, with opposition, have presented their bold visions for the future. Daniel Burnham laid out his plans for Chicago, Corbusier imagined a redeveloped Paris in his Plan Voisin, and even Ebenezer Howard had ideas for how people would live in harmony with nature in his Garden City movement. Although most of their visions were never realized, the cities they shaped are tinged with their aspirations and have inspired others to fight for theirs. And in the instance of Robert Moses vs Jane Jacobs, while it takes a team to build a city- but sometimes it just takes one person to save it.