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.