I have given Edward Glaeser a very hard time on this blog. I reviewed all four segments of his contribution to the Economix Blog on the New York Times regarding the costs of high speed rail. However, Glaeser has recently reviewed Anthony Flint’s new book, Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, for the New Republic. I featured that book in a post I wrote last month about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. Given that Glaeser has promised to come back to the topic of high speed rail in the future, and I am sure to disagree with him again, I want to feature an opportunity where I agree with him.
The following is a selection from his book review:
Jacobs was right that cities are built for people, but they are also built around transportation systems. New York was America’s premier harbor, and the city grew up around the port. The meandering streets of lower Manhattan were laid down in a pedestrian age. Washington Square was urban sprawl in the age of the omnibus. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side were built up in the age of rail, when my great-grandfather would take the long elevated train ride downtown from Washington Heights. It was inevitable that cars would also require urban change. Either older cities would have to adapt, or the population would move entirely to the new car-based cities of the Sunbelt.
The best way to keep cities affordable is to allow private developers to build up and deliver space. Jacobs was right that high-rise public housing is a problem, as street crime is much more prevalent in high-rise, high-poverty neighborhoods. But in more prosperous, privately managed buildings, height is not a problem. If you love cities, as Jacobs certainly did, then presumably you should want the master builders to make them accessible to more people.
Successful cities need both the human interactions of Jane Jacobs and the enabling infrastructure of Robert Moses. Anthony Flint has done a fine job describing the battles between these two great figures, but unlike the Louis-Schmeling fight, their conflict should not be resolved. An absolute victory for Moses leads to heartless cities, built to accommodate cars but not pedestrians, with high-rise buildings that are disconnected from their streets. An absolute victory for Jacobs means a city frozen in concrete with prices that are too high and buildings that are too low. New building is needed to welcome the diversity that makes urban magic. No city can survive without the personal engagements beloved by Jacobs, but no city can thrive without master builders such as Moses.
On this I agree with Glaeser (though I am not sure how much disagreement there really is), that cities of course need to be mixed between organic growth and development and top-down city planning. I am a transportation lover and advocate. No neighborhood is going to build its own subway system. Building permanent transportation networks requires the work of many bureaucrats and all of their skill and resources. Organic growth usually placates the present while bureaucrats need to solve current problems and create systems that prevent future ones from occurring. The great hope is that our governments going forward reflect the best of both Moses and Jacobs; taking into account the voice of the neighborhood and social justice while creating the larger projects that can define and shape our cities.