Jane Jacobs – Robert Moses Conundrum


The legacy of Jane Jacobs and importance of her work is often doubted by market-based economists. Although I too [for most part] support the market mechanism, I also believe that at certain points, there are other arguments for promoting a cause other than brute efficiency. Jane Jacobs’s seminal work, The Life and Death of Great American Cities addressed the haughty approach practiced back then by evangelist planners who had lost touch with ground realities. Of course, everything fell in place and people were better off but the places that emerged lacked character. People were better off economically but definitely desired more than just a reliable and efficient way to obtain utilities and places to shop. California may be one of the most expensive places in the country yet people choose to live there due to intangible factors like great climate and quality of life that may be difficult to transfer elsewhere. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolutions considers Jacobs “tiny-teeny bit overrated”. He says,

It is fine to juxtapose the old Greenwich Village against the gargantuan planning of the corrupt Robert Moses. Few other social scientists of her time grasped the idea of spontaneous order. But what to do if a city grows from one million to ten million people, as has happened many times in the Third World?

To be sure, favelas and shanties work far better than their reputations. Drug gangs aside, they embody many of the best qualities of Jacob’s analysis, or for that matter Hayek’s. But surely it is a problem when there is no piped water or reliable electricity. How can you get those services into new areas without some serious planning? You can call for private sector involvement but it is planning nonetheless and it probably will involve some use of eminent domain. Or how about new roads?

I believe he straddles an important middle-ground that has plagued much of planning literature. Planning, everyone agrees is important and necessary but they differ on how much planning or control is required. Libertarians argue that the market should be allowed to let a city organically grow according to the economic needs of the people. But then, we have a resulting city like Houston that you definitely wouldn’t pride living in. Complete top-down approach, like that empowered Le Corbusier gave rise to Chandigarh which I believe, failed to connect with the people and still remains a mystery even to the people who live there. Jacobs may have leaned a wee bit too much toward the left but her opposition to Moses, who built much of New York’s infrastructure, was well-intentioned. Moses’ creations may have helped New York be the city that is today but at the same time, social injustices cannot be overlooked in the name of progress. Equal representation to all sections of the society must remain planning’s overarching objective.

Times are much different from when Moses and Jacobs practices their professions and it may not be possible to adhere to simply one process of planning. Globalization and urban agglomeration has made Jacobs’ idyllic sense of a community redundant whereas the global melting pot of cultures and ethnicities in any metropolis worth its salt has refocused attention on social justice.

Is it time to develop a new theory for planning that focuses on changing times, social and economic, as well as keep an eye on sustainability? Or does one already exist that needs a little tweaking?