I have given Edward Glaeser a very hard time on this blog.  I reviewed all four segments of his contribution to the Economix Blogwrestling with moses 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.

jane jacobsrobert moses

Howard Husock wrote a book review in the latest issue of City Journal discussing Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City, by Anthony Flint, and Genius of Common Sense: Jane Jacobs and the Story of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch.

Jane Jacobs was the great self-taught urban philosopher and activist who wrote the Death and Life of Great American Cities, in which she took the lessons she learned from Greenwich Village to expound upon the value of organic urban life, where planning and government have  a limited but instrumental role.  This stood in direct contrast to the most powerful man in New York, the unelected Robert Moses, who built many of New York City’s highways and housing projects.

Husock makes many notable points, including this one:

But good cases can make bad law, and the successful defense of Washington Square Park and the West Village can lead too easily to the conclusion that neighborhood preservation, by whatever means necessary, is always correct—and that opponents of development, by definition, occupy the moral high ground. Thanks partly to their efforts, New York City has not opened a new subway line since 1942, has no easy transit link to its airports, and enforces a system of legally dictated rents that allow affluent tenants to stay forever in cheap apartments and insulate themselves from neighborhood change. Some would even extend such rent controls to commercial properties, thus interrupting the cycle of decline and rebirth that marks dynamic cities.

Neither Moses nor Jacobs had a perfect philosophy.  Any transportation advocate recognizes the need for eminent domain at some minimal level and that good transit can help organic growth.  Think about how commercial and residential centers grow around particular subway stops or how other areas decay when city planners choose to move a bus line or close a light rail stop.  In this day and age there is no such thing as truly organic transit.  The days of paving over old walking and cow paths are over and transit now is a matter of government and the community working to make transit systems and routes that work with and for the community.

Moreover, Moses and Jacobs stand as historic examples of the long-lasting effects of making (or not making decisions in planning).  Moses radically changed the city and Jacobs prevented some of his other attempts and set the tone to make sure that other Moses-like projects would never occur.  In this day and age of 24-hour media we forget that our policy decisions have a longer lasting effect than the day or week they are put into place.  A policy decision, especially one as large as where or whether to build a highway or subway can have ramifications for decades if not centuries.

As we finally begin to give transportation infrastructure its due in the 21st century, we are best served to remember that any decision on transit–whether it is high speed rail, improving our highways, investing in more subways, efficient cars or something else we are bound to imagine–those decisions do not solve only current problems.  Those decisions will have ramifications today and for centuries to come.  Transportation grants should not be handed out for efficiecy’s sake or for mere stimulus effect, but to establish and preserve productive, creative, economically thriving centers of American life.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.