(Roughly) Daily

“By far the greatest and most admirable form of wisdom is that needed to plan and beautify cities and human communities”*…

Concept renderings of Robert Moses’ proposed LOMEX (Lower Manhattan Expressway), drawing by Paul Rudolph. Courtesy of Library of Congress

… yes, but in what, Christopher Moon-Miklaucic asks, does that wisdom inhere?

The [Robert] Moses and [Jane] Jacobs debate begins as a disagreement over the future of New York City but ends up becoming a much larger representation of two divergent views of the fate of cities. If Jacobs saw in cities, life, diversity, and complexity, Moses saw infrastructure, efficiency, and the act of building. Robert Caro famously dubbed him the “Power Broker”, symbolizing a top-down, large-scale approach to planning, while Jacobs was seen as the “eye on the street”, in many ways epitomizing a much smaller-scale reading of the city as viewed from the handlebars of her bicycle. Despite looking at the city from different angles, and offering wildly different solutions to improving city life, both Jacobs and Moses were ultimately critics of utopian planners such as Ebenezer Howard, Daniel Burnham, Le Corbusier and other “order obsessed” types. Unsurprisingly, planners have long been fascinated by these two characters, who have been simultaneously celebrated and polarizing. Their disagreements have often served as a proxy of both the power and importance of citizen participation, but also its striking limitations. Today, the debate is being reassessed because despite the romantic allure of Jacobs, the efficiency of the planning process and its ability to strive for change while taking into account a wide variety of needs is still in question, and a longing for Moses’ adept ability to navigate bureaucracies seems to be resurfacing…

[The author unpacks the history of the disagreement, and unpacks the duelling principles/imperatives at work on each side…]

…It might be too simple to say that Jacobs’ view was ethically and morally correct. Clearly, planners should strive to ensure that the will of the people is represented adequately and equally in the plans put forth by developers and local governments. The issue, though, is that Jacobs criticized city planning, but not the “big economic and social forces” that originated many of the projects she opposed. In other words, Moses wasn’t completely alone in his undertaking to shape New York City. There were powerful vested interests behind his actions as well, and his accomplishment was the ability to “get things done” in a manner that most wouldn’t expect of municipal government. If planning is often criticized for being too slow, and even when communities are involved the equity results remain suboptimal, Moses seems to represent an alternative, more efficient approach.

Skepticism of a perfunctory model of citizen participation, which still often rests in procedural and consultative arrangements, may be the reason behind the rehabilitation of Moses and the shifting of the narrative underlying the debate. Perhaps within a context of an ever-changing world that is obsessed with instant gratification, Moses as “America’s greatest builder” is seen as the type of planner needed in order to quickly and efficiently improve current conditions, whereas Jacobs is seen as the “champion of stasis”, content with the status quo and seeking to stifle inevitable change and progress. To some, the Jacobean ideology of community-based planning might represent a decline in the authority and influence of the planner, leading to a nostalgic longing for the golden age of Moses, when planners were considered masters of their domain and free from the bureaucratic shackles that often limit large-scale developments.

Ultimately, the Moses and Jacobs debate remains relevant to planners today because it serves as a proxy for the power and limitations of citizen participation. If the planning sphere often links Jacobs’ life and work to a recently emerging style of communicative action planning, the criticisms of the approach are part of the reason Moses’ legacy is being rewritten. To some, Jacobs’ ideologies have led to a style of city planning that is too cautious and self-reflective, and Moses’ top-down methods symbolize planning that asserts itself in order to focus less on process and more on outcomes. If not slightly alarming, this shift in narrative should lead the planning profession to ask itself a difficult question which lurks within the shadows of this debate: what do we value more, the effects planning decisions have on communities and people, or the physical act of building and getting things done?

A half-century-old debate about New York City’s urban development continues to evoke a multitude of controversies in planning: “Robert Moses, Jane Jacobs, and the Ever-Changing Role of the Planner,” from @chris_moonm in @TDocumentarian.

* Socrates


As we ponder planning, we might that it was on this date in 1781 that El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (“The town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels”; in common use, Pueblo de los Ángeles) was settled. By the 20th century it became known simply as Los Angeles.

A map situating the original settlement in more modern Los Angeles


Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 4, 2022 at 1:00 am

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