Street fighter: how Jane Jacobs saved New York from Bulldozer Bob

‘She picked up things no one else could see’ … Jane Jacobs holding a petition.
Photograph: Phil Stanziola/World Telegram & Sun/Library of Congress
"Robert Moses was the despotic planner hellbent on building four-lane highways through neighbourhoods. She was the cyclist who stopped him. A new film, Citizen Jane, revisits their David and Goliath struggle for the soul of New York

“There is nobody against this,” insisted a flustered Robert Moses at the hearing for his plan to drive a four-lane highway through New York’s Washington Square Park in 1958. “Nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of ... a bunch of mothers.”

The despotic city planner hadn’t counted on the determination of the mothers in question, or the ferocity of their leader – an owlish stenographer and freelance journalist by the name of Jane Jacobs. As part of his insatiable hunger for grand public works, Moses wanted to extend Fifth Avenue through the square, ostensibly to ease congestion, but with the real motive of rewarding developers and raising property values south of the park, where he had already razed a swath of Greenwich Village for redevelopment.

Jacobs, who lived in the West Village and knew how much her neighbourhood valued the park, mobilised a vocal coalition of campaigners, residents and politicians, who eventually halted the project. “It is very discouraging to do our best to make the city more habitable,” Jacobs wrote to the mayor, “and then to learn that the city is thinking up schemes to make it uninhabitable.”

That hearing was the only time Jacobs and Moses ever crossed paths, the single meeting in an oft-recounted, years-long David and Goliath saga of the saintly protector of the streets fighting the villainous master builder. Their duel, which came to symbolise the struggle of “bottom-up” versus “top-down”, is the focus of a new documentary, Citizen Jane: Battle for the City, made to commemorate her centenary last year.

Now arriving in the UK, the film brings home the enduring relevance of her ideas. Three years after her Washington Square victory, the inquisitive self-taught journalist published a book that would change urban planning for ever. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was a rallying cry against the destruction the broad brush of postwar urban renewal was wreaking on the fine grain of the city.With startling precision and sensitivity, Jacobs detailed how streets and spaces are actually used by people, as opposed to how they are perceived from above on the politician’s grand plan. Jacobs deployed her training in zoology, geology and political science to look at the city through an anthropologist’s eye, using ecological metaphors to describe urban life as a complex and fragile ecosystem. As one of the talking heads in the documentary puts it: “She was the hypersensitive antennae, picking up on things no one else could see.”

To her, the success of a vibrant city came from the “intricacy of pavement use, bringing with it a constant succession of eyes”. This daily “street ballet” of public interaction that unfolded outside her house is depicted with archive footage of bustling Manhattan dating from the early to mid 20th century. “There must be eyes upon the street,” she wrote, “eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers, and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers, must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

It all sounds like common sense now, but to the postwar planners – infected with the modernist dogma of sweeping the slate clean to make way for tower blocks in wide open spaces – this was an affront to everything they had been taught. Jacobs had witnessed at first hand the failures of urban renewal in Philadelphia, where a zoning masterplan siloed different functions – housing, industry, offices, shops –into towers, separated by yawning public spaces lined with retail units that were soon lying empty. People weren’t behaving as they should, the planners said, refusing to accept that their brave new concrete vision wasn’t tuned to how citizens actually behave.

The documentary forcefully charts Jacobs’ battles and the level of destruction power-hungry Moses inflicted on existing communities in the name of improving New York for the greater public good. We see the carnage inflicted by the Cross Bronx Expressway, the country’s first major urban highway, which carved a ravine through the borough, fatally separating north and south Bronx in a piece of vandalism described by writer Mike Davis as “the single most destructive act in the history of US cities”.

The Lower Manhattan Expressway, which Jacobs and her allies halted, would have inflicted a similar fate on Soho and Little Italy – conveniently framed by Moses as a crime-ridden “hell’s hundred acres”, to be swept clean by gleaming new arteries topped with futuristic mega-structures. Old TV clips show “Big Bob the Builder” oozing arrogance and reptilian cunning, as he condemns whole areas, describing a low-income part of Harlem as “a cancerous growth that has to be carved out” and scoffing at the idea of compensating landowners who stand in his way: “Do you think anything would ever be built if we did that?” All that’s missing is footage of him being chauffeur-driven around the city in his stretch limo with pigskin seats.

By contrast, Jacobs is the indomitable champion of the people, gliding around town on her bicycle, corralling campaigns into action. She was a master of popular media, choreographing stunts like mock funerals for neighbourhoods and staging colourful protests with snappy badges and banners. Proclaimed Queen Jane by Vogue and photographed by Diane Arbus for Esquire, she counted Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan Sontag among her supporters.

If it all sounds a little black and white, that’s because it is. Told, retold and even produced as a children’s story, the pantomime goody-baddy narrative has become drastically oversimplified, a problem that this film does little to address. Yes, Moses was a bullying megalomaniac, but he also built 13 bridges, two tunnels, 637 miles of highways, 658 playgrounds, 10 giant public swimming pools, 17 state parks, not to mention dozens of housing projects and city parks.

Neither should Jacobs’ theories and her influence on contemporary “good practice” go totally unquestioned. “Jacobs romanticised social conditions that were already becoming obsolete,” says urban sociologist Sharon Zukin, while Deyan Sudjic, director of the Design Museum in London, believes her “underlying message is of unblinking paranoia”.

Jacobs’ writings have led to a collective received wisdom – driven by the spurious discipline of “placemaking” – that decrees every street frontage should be “active”, every public space should bustle with civic life, every bit of the city should be configured around clear “desire lines” from A to B, with citizens’ movement intricately choreographed. It is a world in which narrow alleyways and quiet corners are banished in favour of 24-hour curated vibrancy.

Ironically, in an echo of Big Bob’s hunger for demolition, Jacobs’ arguments are now being deployed to raze postwar council estates across the world, her principles mobilised to lambast “sink estates”, conflating social problems and lack of maintenance with a particular style of architecture. They are the new cancer to be carved out. At the same time, the kinds of historic districts Jacobs helped to save now often feel like open-air museums, places as soulless and devoid of real life as the high-rises she so despised.

A hint of this would have added a welcome cautionary tone to the film. Instead it ends with Saskia Sassen, the Dutch sociologist, railing against China’s new megacities as “Moses on steroids”, over footage shot from a speeding car. If urbanists got out and looked more closely, as Jacobs herself did, they’d find that urban life continues to flourish in unexpected places. As critic Paul Goldberger concludes, Jacobs’ finest quality was “a willingness to doubt the received wisdom and trust our eyes instead”.”

The Lazy's Person Guide to Save the World

"End extreme poverty. Fight inequality and injustice. Fix climate change. Whoa. The Global Goals are important, world-changing objectives that will require cooperation among governments, international organizations and world leaders. It seems impossible that the average person can make an impact. Should you just give up?
No! Change starts with you. Seriously. Every human on earth—even the most indifferent, laziest person among us—is part of the solution. Fortunately, there are some super easy things we can adopt into our routines that, if we all do it, will make a big difference.

We’ve made it easy for you and compiled just a few of the many things you can do to make an impact.

Level 1: Sofa superstar
Things you can do from your couch
Save electricity by plugging appliances into a power strip and turning them off completely when not in use, including your computer.
Stop paper bank statements and pay your bills online or via mobile. No paper, no need for forest destruction.
Share, don’t just like. If you see an interesting social media post about women’s rights or climate change, share it so folks in your network see it too.
Speak up! Ask your local and national authorities to engage in initiatives that don’t harm people or the planet. You can also voice your support for the Paris Agreement and ask your country to ratify it or sign it if it hasn’t yet.
Don’t print. See something online you need to remember? Jot it down in a notebook or better yet a digital post-it note and spare the paper.
Turn off the lights. Your TV or computer screen provides a cosy glow, so turn off other lights if you don’t need them.
Do a bit of online research and buy only from companies that you know have sustainable practices and don’t harm the environment.
Report online bullies. If you notice harassment on a message board or in a chat room, flag that person.
Stay informed. Follow your local news and stay in touch with the Global Goals online or on social media at @GlobalGoalsUN.
Tell us about your actions to achieve the global goals by using the hashtag #globalgoals on social networks.
In addition to the above, offset your remaining carbon emissions! You can calculate your carbon footprint and purchase climate credits from Climate Neutral Now. In this way, you help reduce global emissions faster!”

Level 2: Household hero
Things you can do at home
Air dry. Let your hair and clothes dry naturally instead of running a machine. If you do wash your clothes, make sure the load is full.
Take short showers. Bathtubs require gallons more water than a 5-10 minute shower.
Eat less meat, poultry, and fish. More resources are used to provide meat than plants
Freeze fresh produce and leftovers if you don’t have the chance to eat them before they go bad. You can also do this with take-away or delivered food, if you know you will not feel like eating it the next day. You will save food and money.
Compost—composting food scraps can reduce climate impact while also recycling nutrients.
Recycling paper, plastic, glass & aluminium keeps landfills from growing.
Buy minimally packaged goods.
Avoid pre-heating the oven. Unless you need a precise baking temperature, start heating your food right when you turn on the oven.
Plug air leaks in windows and doors to increase energy efficiency
Adjust your thermostat, lower in winter, higher in summer
Replace old appliances with energy efficient models and light bulbs
If you have the option, install solar panels in your house. This will also reduce your electricity bill!
Get a rug. Carpets and rugs keep your house warm and your thermostat low.
Don’t rinse. If you use a dishwasher, stop rinsing your plates before you run the machine.
Choose a better diaper option. Swaddle your baby in cloth diapers or a new, environmentally responsible disposable brand.
Shovel snow manually. Avoid the noisy, exhaust-churning snow blower and get some exercise.
Use cardboard matches. They don’t require any petroleum, unlike plastic gas-filled lighters.

Level 3: Neighborhood nice guy
Things you can do outside your house
Shop local. Supporting neighbourhood businesses keeps people employed and helps prevent trucks from driving far distances.
Shop Smart—plan meals, use shopping lists and avoid impulse buys. Don’t succumb to marketing tricks that lead you to buy more food than you need, particularly for perishable items. Though these may be less expensive per ounce, they can be more expensive overall if much of that food is discarded.
Buy Funny Fruit—many fruits and vegetables are thrown out because their size, shape, or color are not “right”. Buying these perfectly good funny fruit, at the farmer’s market or elsewhere, utilizes food that might otherwise go to waste.
When you go to a restaurant and are ordering seafood always ask: “Do you serve sustainable seafood?” Let your favorite businesses know that ocean-friendly seafood’s on your shopping list.
Shop only for sustainable seafood. There are now many apps like this one that will tell you what is safe to consume.
Bike, walk or take public transport. Save the car trips for when you’ve got a big group.
Use a refillable water bottle and coffee cup. Cut down on waste and maybe even save money at the coffee shop.
Bring your own bag when you shop. Pass on the plastic bag and start carrying your own reusable totes.
Take fewer napkins. You don’t need a handful of napkins to eat your takeout. Take just what you need.
Shop vintage. Brand-new isn’t necessarily best. See what you can repurpose from second-hand shops.
Maintain your car. A well-tuned car will emit fewer toxic fumes.
Donate what you don’t use. Local charities will give your gently used clothes, books and furniture a new life.
Vaccinate yourself and your kids. Protecting your family from disease also aids public health.
Take advantage of your right to elect the leaders in your country and local community."