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Jane Jacobs v. Robert Moses—the story is more surprising than you think

Jane Jacobs wasn’t opposed to data-driven decisions, she just believed data should be used differently, according to a new book that is about data for the public good.

Jane Jacobs v. Robert Moses—the story is more surprising than you think
[Photos: United States Library of Congress, Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash]
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As digital systems multiply across the urban landscape, they are producing immense streams of data that can help inform how we manage and plan cities. The potential now exists, at a scale previously unavailable, to directly measure issues that have been central to urban planning since its inception, such as equity, environment, value creation, service provision, public opinion, and the effects of physical form. But many city planners find their relationship with technology, data, and its use in communities to be an uneasy one.

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[Image: courtesy MIT Press]
Data analytics and visualizations have done tremendous good in the world, from easing and stopping disease to exposing exploitation and human rights violations. At the same time, data analytics and algorithms all too often exclude women, the poor, and ethnic groups. How do we reconcile the potential of data to marginalize people and reinforce racism with its ability to end disease and expose inhuman practices? These two realities remind us that the same data, in the hands of different people, can produce wildly different outcomes for society because each uses data to show its vision of the world.

The modern city was shaped by experiments with data analytics that can be traced back to the First Industrial Revolution. At that time, cities doubled in population as people flocked from the countryside to work in factories. With that growth came extreme poverty, a lack of proper housing and sanitation, and outbreaks of disease. Understanding the urban poor propelled early nineteenth-century data collection efforts, and all this new data gave birth to modern statistics and public health. These Victorian-era data scientists used their analytics as evidence for the development of modern sanitation systems and the need for light and air in housing—helping to create new building codes. Later, this same data, often visualized through maps, was deployed as evidence for the removal of whole neighborhoods and the strategic blighting of undesirable communities.

Jane Jacobs, chairman of the Comm. to Save the West Village, holds up documentary evidence at press conference at Lions Head Restaurant at Hudson & Charles. [Photo: Phil Stanziola/World Telegram & Sun/Library of Congress]
These were the methods of mid-century urban renewal policies, which often exacerbated problems in urban areas and caused some urban activists to fight the top-down planning methods that were being employed by technocratic planners. Jane Jacobs, an influential civic activist who became well known for her work in New York City in the 1960s, believed human-centered narratives were essential for understanding the economic and social needs of cities. She fought against using data-driven policies as evidence for building highways because the results were so devastating to entire neighborhoods—and saw the removal of these neighborhoods as a complete failure to acknowledge the importance that their residents and networks played in the larger economy of the city. She and other activists wanted the voice of the public to be included into the decision-making process.

It’s interesting to note that Jacobs didn’t argue against data per se, but rather against how data was typically collected and analyzed. She was interested in understanding how the social connections of place created certain ties that strengthened the urban economy. These social ties are difficult to quantify, but qualitative data, including local stories and imagery, can be helpful in explaining them. Yet technocratic planners often relied solely on the data on the map to defend their ideas about the removal of perceived blight.

Jane Jacobs’ ideas about the city were often pitted against those of Robert Moses, New York City’s most influential planner. Moses has come to represent the technocratic planner whose main concern was making New York a “modern” city of highways and high-rises. Moses was able to deploy urban renewal strategies that effectively severed the community ties that Jacobs valued by using data as evidence, and also by producing the types of maps advocated by Bartholomew. Jacobs, in contrast, came to represent a more qualitative planner who understood that the social networks of people are what make the city a great place to live, and that preserving those social networks, which help build and maintain community, were a legitimate focus of the urban planner’s concern. For Jacobs, such social and support networks were often essential for low-income communities—and the modernist city as Moses envisioned posed a great threat to them.

Robert Moses, Park Commissioner of New York City, with a 1939 model of the proposed Battery Bridge. [Photo: C. M. Spieglitz/World Telegram and Sun, 1939/Library of Congress]
Moses and Jacobs are often cited to represent two forms of city planning, one which preferences the use of data to create evidence for modernist ideals, and the other which preferences strengthening communities through policies that support their needs and reinforce social ties. I would caution against that simple binary and argue that both used data to create evidence for their visions of the city, but they did so to different ends. In fact, two famous pictures illustrate this eloquently: Jacobs is holding documents with citizens’ signatures, while Moses stands in front of one of his urban renewal projects holding a report full of data analytics offering evidence for the development. Both are powerful documents, powerful pieces of data. Jane used her data to save a neighborhood from destruction, and Moses displaced whole communities to realize his modernist dream. Here lies the crucial aspect of the problem of data in the city: it can be used to empower some and marginalize others.

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Excerpted from Data Action: Using Data for Public Good by Sarah Williams. MIT University Press, 2020.