On April 10, 1968, Jane Jacobs was arrested and charged with inciting a riot at a protest against the Lower Manhattan Expressway, an eight-lane elevated highway proposed by Robert Moses that would have obliterated a chunk of the SoHo neighborhood and displaced nearly 2,000 families.
Fortunately, the plan was defeated. But Moses prevailed over Jacobs in other cases, such as the Cross Bronx Expressway.
Jacobs and Moses are the polar stars of urban planning. He used his political might to ram home big institutional projects, like Lincoln Center and suburban parkways. She was the searing voice of neighborhood resistance and an advocate of small-scale ingenuity, in all its messy brilliance. Cities were at their best, she wrote, when politicians stepped aside and let the “ballet of the sidewalks” take over.
The epic Moses versus Jacobs battle has renewed relevance today as New York and other U.S. cities gear up for a new wave of infrastructure work prompted by stimulus spending and the need to retrofit for efficiency. Yesterday Mayor Bloomberg of New York scored one for the Jacobs team by releasing a street design manual that is meant to coax the city away from car-centric planning and toward a more pedestrian-friendly future.
The manual does not impose rules or restrictions. Instead, it conveys what the city favors, with the understanding that proposals with these features will more likely gain approval. While the plan applies only to New York, it takes a global view. Many of the materials and techniques are already being used in Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. And the 232-page document contains photos of a bus lane in Paris and a raised intersection in Brighton, England.
Many of the features spring straight from the Jane Jacobs playbook, like mixed-use streets and short, dense blocks. Some would be entirely foreign to her, such as L.E.D. street lights and the colored rubber pavement already in use on Broadway (above).
According to Claire Weisz, a partner in the design firm W X Y, Robert Moses tried to build a level of design excellence into the city infrastructure, but by the 1990s “everything got watered down to 5′ by 5′ scored gray concrete with cast iron curbs and asphalt streets with painted lines.” The real problem, she told me in a recent email, was the mindset of the old transportation bureaucracy: “Even if it’s ugly don’t change it.”
A crucial question for the coming years is this: can the new design consciousness making its way into the public realm of New York and other cities prevail over bureaucratic inertia?