What Should We Learn From Moses and Jacobs?

There is probably no more beloved figure in urbanism than Jane Jacobs, who fought to preserve some of New York City's most treasured neighborhoods and who gave urbanists some of the field's fundamental texts. As Ed Glaeser notes in the New Republic this week, Jacobs died in 2006 "a cherished, almost saintly figure," while her principal antagonist, Robert Moses, remains popularly reviled as a villain.
3227424_t346.jpgJane Jacobs (center, in light dress) demonstrates at New York City's old Penn Station. (Photo: Metropolis)
But as American cities have outgrown their infrastructure in recent decades, and as political institutions have proven unable to muster the energy necessary to construct great projects, Moses' reputation has enjoyed something of a recovery. Increasingly, he is being actively rehabilitated in new histories and essays, of which Glaeser's review is an example. These efforts are interesting because they manage to earn a degree of sympathy from urbanists themselves, who have grown increasingly tired of the decades required to navigate a transit line from planning stages to operation. There is something very attractive about an individual who can drive the stakes and get the project built -- damn the politicians, and damn the NIMBYs. But this is dangerous territory. In rehabilitating Moses and reconsidering Jacobs, it's important to be clear about where each was right, and where each went wrong. There are many ways to interpret the clash between Moses and Jacobs: development versus preservation, city versus suburb, design for people versus design for automobiles, power versus powerlessness, and so on. To acknowledge that the balance has swung too far in one direction in one of these conflicts does not at all suggest that the balances are similarly out of whack on others. Take, for example, one of Glaeser's principal intellectual standbys: that resistance to development slows the growth of housing supply, increasing housing costs. Glaeser says: Read more...