Wednesday, November 08, 2006

small-scale and large-scale development

Two very interesting essays in Gotham Gazette today (thanks to Curbed for the links). In one, Amanda Burden, the chair of the New York City Planning Commission and director of the Department of City Planning, talks about the competing influences of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses on city development. Jacobs was an advocate of streets and neighborhoods. Moses was a central planner and an advocate of large-scale development projects. Burden comes down primarily on the side of Jacobs, and says that she has basically won the argument on style, but that Moses may have been correct on scope.

Moses may have gotten a lot done, built a great deal in the name of “the people”, but the truth is that he wanted little to do with the people who would live in the city he created. Their voices were dispensable, their homes were dispensable. And that is why he couldn’t conceive of the importance of neighborhoods.

Jacobs, on the other hand, knew that if you neglect neighborhoods, you do so at the city’s peril. People who no longer have faith in the future of the place in which they were brought up or where they are raising a family, will, if they can afford it, leave for a more predictable, safer place.


Where we do, or some of us might, have nostalgia for Moses is in the realization that it is very very difficult to get very complex and expensive projects built that are critical to our city’s future such as the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, a one seat ride to the airport from Lower Manhattan and the #7 line.


Big cities need big projects. Big projects are a necessary part of the diversity, competition and growth that both Jacobs and Moses fought for. But today’s big projects must have a human scale; must be designed, from idea to construction, to fit into the city. Projects may fail to live up to Jane Jacob’s standards, but they are still judged by her rules.

It is to the great credit of the mayor that we are building and rezoning today, once again, like Moses, on an unprecedented scale, but, with Jacobs firmly in mind, invigorated by the belief that the process matters and that great things can be built through a focus on the details, on the street, for the people who live in this great city.

In the other, Brad Lander of the Pratt Center for Community Development extends on this Jacobs vs. Moses theme and talks about how New York should balance affordable housing and grassroots neighborhoods with infrastructure development and the need for significant growth due to population pressures. He focuses on two recently proposed development projects, the sale and possible conversion to market-rate condos of Stuyvesant Town, the massive middle-class affordable-housing project in Manhattan, and the development of waterfront residential towers as part of the Queens West project.

It is not simply income and racial diversity that is in question. New York City’s growth and consequent market-led real estate pressures are putting strains on the quality of life of neighborhoods in every corner or the city – more traffic, more people using scarce open space, overcrowded schools in many growing neighborhoods, tear-downs of historic structures.

The answers will not be found in Moses’ style top-down mega-projects, which led to massive increases in traffic and were in many instance contemptuous of the very poor families they were serving (although he did create more open space that anyone before or since).

But the answers also won’t be found – as some who invoke Jacobs’ name today try to do – in seeking to prevent development altogether, nor in diminishing the role of government in city-building. New York City is expected to grow by one million people (mostly as a result of immigration) in the coming decades. We need thoughtful city planning and smart, activist government to make that growth work for New York’s communities.

I'm very pleased that this smart development approach is now in the forefront, and that the Mayor has decided that his legacy requires the creation of an Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability. Hopefully the combination of large-scale infrastructure development and small-scale, neighborhood-based community development will allow the city to grow in a way that will allow everyone to be able to live here, and also to want to live here.



At 3:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great Blog. I love the photos and how you write about development and architecture.



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