• The Death and Life of Urban Planning

    by  • 25 Apr ’06 • new york, obituaries • 0 Comments

    Hearing of Jane Jacobs’ death, I am reminded that Elana borrowed my copy of “Death and Life of Great American Cities” and never returned it (and people wonder why I’m stingy about lending out books and CDs). She does work in policy, and I’m just a union organizer. I would like to read it again, though.

    When I was in my final semester at Queens College, I was able to indulge a budding interest in urban planning with a few courses on the subject. Within that stale air of academic urban planning – with baroque architecture, the White City of the Chicago World’s Fair, garden cities and Le Corbusier – Jacobs’ writing still is a breath of fresh air. Her simple theses about the “eyes on the street,” diversity of use and how success can drive out success remain such a useful way for viewing street life. I still think about these ideas when driving around on lawnguyland, with its lifeless cul de sacs, sterile office parks, smoggy highways and antiseptic shopping malls.

    But I’m also sympathetic to Le Corbusier and the idea of high rises and green space. It’s socialist, albeit the variety of socialism puts academic planning ahead of how people actually live their lives. And Jane Jacobs is so anti-socialist, particularly the convoluted plan for corporate welfare that she proffered as an alternative to simple, public housing (form does not follow function; publicly-owned housing doesn’t have to be cheap, drab and ghettoized – that’s just what capitalist politicians did to it).

    Moreover, Jacobs’ simple observations missed the obvious points that not every street can be Christopher Street, and that no one wants to live in the tenement apartment building next door to the hog fat rendering plant. Some planning is required.

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