Under my byline

Urban legends

Posted in Architecture/Design, Books, Living by Rrishi on 8 August 2009

Robert Moses with a model of Battery Bridge, never builtOVERLEAF 41Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities

No matter how much our cities have changed in the last two decades, we haven’t yet had more than the faintest foretaste of the revolution to come. I don’t mean mass social unrest; rather, a significant reshaping of our view of the urban environment.

It’s not just that cities are growing too fast, that the future of employment seems no longer to lie with big companies, that there’s a trend towards transparency and public participation in local government, and that citizens have zooming aspirations. It is that these issues and others meet in the design of our cities, the way they look and make us behave.

This is why Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most insightful books ever written on the city, is still fresh and meaningful. (I am proud to possess an original 1961 edition.) There she lays out her ideas on urban planning — ideas developing since she moved to New York City from small-town Pennsylvania in 1934. They can roughly be summarised as “small is beautiful as well as wise”. This may now sound like old hat, but Jacobs was the pioneer.

When she wrote the book, the fate of her beloved city was still in the hands of urban development czar Robert Moses. Moses had been directing major planning projects in New York since the 1940s, and he was particularly dedicated to making Manhattan and the territories around it freely accessible to the automobile. It was Moses, for instance, who opened up Long Island to suburbanisation, despite fierce resistance from locals, including rich New Yorkers with country estates. And it was Moses who drove freeways through downtown, obliterating some of the neighbourhoods so dear to Jacobs.

Much of what Moses did was very popular. It was nice for families to drive along landscaped new highways (“parkways”) in their new cars, and have someplace to go at the end of the road — Moses also built amusement parks and sports stadia (none of which, sadly, were very beautiful). To do all this he could raise what money he liked by issuing bonds, and once the tolls started rolling in, he could use that money too, with virtually no oversight.

But other things did not work out so well, notably Moses’s urban “improvements”, which involved levelling low-rise neighbourhoods and putting the residents into tall blocks surrounded by lawns and acres of parking. This was modernist orthodoxy, whose intellectual parents included Le Corbusier. It was not immediately apparent how great a social disaster this tearing up of the urban fabric was; nor did Moses and his planners pay enough attention to the aftermath of their work.

Eventually, times and ideas changed, while Moses did not. Jacobs led the charge against sweeping top-down urban redevelopment; and her own work inspired the influential design philosophy of New Urbanism, which determinedly disprivileges the automobile.

What of India? We have lots of petty Robert Moseses, but not yet any Jane Jacobses. We’re building unwieldy satellite towns through laziness and greed, adding roadspace and costly public transport alternatives-that-aren’t, losing trees, letting private developers determine where and how we live; until the whole city feels like a funnel through which one must pass in order to be somewhere else. At some point, the forces I mentioned above are going to meet at breaking point, and the result will be an attempt to think the modern Indian city rather than just await it. We will be forced to start where Jacobs did: by first observing what actually works and then working out ways to make the most of it. Expect, at least, a revaluation of slums.

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