Interview with Anthony Flint

flint interview pageAnthony Flint  

In your new book, “Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took on New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City,” you write about Jane Jacob’s efforts to stop Robert Moses’s major highway plans, which would have decimated Greenwich Village’s Washington Square Park, major parts of the West Village and SoHo, Little Italy, Chinatown, and the Lower East Side. Please describe the contrasting visions of New York City offered by Moses and Jacobs, and how they came into conflict.

They certainly are a stark contrast and both remarkable people in their own ways, and that’s why it was so much fun to write this book and why I think it’s a marvelous and theatrical story.

She was the housewife from Scranton, who never got a college degree and who shunned credentials, moved to New York and fell in love with its old neighborhoods, and was entirely self-taught as she wrote "The Death and Life of Great American Cities," which revolutionized planning and permanently changed the way we think about cities. She identified the elements of the well-functioning urban neighborhood, its scale and mix of uses, and the successful public space – and saw that the excesses of modernism and the policy of urban renewal were hurting more than helping our cities. So she rose up to take on the establishment, in classic David vs. Goliath fashion.

He was the power broker, dapper and swaggering, on the swim team at Yale and with a PhD from Oxford, who lorded over his own private government and single-handedly built the New York we know today – its bridges, tunnels, and parkways, parks and swimming pools, Jones Beach, the U.N. building, Shea Stadium, and a long list of public works and urban infrastructure that also endure to this day. He wanted to save New York from economic decline, make it easy to get around, and to provide ample housing. Some of his accomplishments were laudable, but as he consolidated power he got a bit carried away and wouldn’t accept criticism – setting up the clash with Jacobs over roadways and the cross-town expressways and the urban-renewal bulldozers and bleak towers in the park.

Jane Jacobs successfully put an end to Moses’s plans to add a roadway through the Washington Square Park area. Under the campaign, “Parks Are for People,” Jacobs helped raise awareness of how parks actually work, and facilitate complex social interaction. Jacobs and her “bunch of mothers” stymied Moses. How important was this early success in creating a sense of public ownership over parks? Did this kind of local activism also set-off the powerful, not-in-my-backyard (NIMBY) forces that stymie most large projects these days? 

The battle of Washington Square Park was a landmark event in the growing sense of stewardship of city public spaces in the mid-20th century, and for citizen engagement and community planning in general as well. It was really the precursor to some perhaps better-known battles in Central Park. For Jacobs, it was an introduction to her career as an acvitist; in 1955 she found out about Moses’ proposal to extend 5th Avenue through the park – and by the way, so his urban renewal project, Washington Square Southeast, south of the park along today’s LaGuardia Place, could have a 5th Avenue address – and she dashed off letters of opposition and praised Shirley Hayes, an early neighborhood leader. Jacobs ended up joining the campaign and employed her excellent skills mobilizing local politicians, attracting attention in the media, and setting up photo opportunities, like the one with her daughter at a “ribbon tying” (vs the ribbon-cutting) ceremony. It was quite a sophisticated effort and it set the stage from there on out for the involvement of residents. 

flint_washington_2016Washington Square Park, NYC / NYC Parks Department  

But yes, part of my conclusion in the book is that some of that tradition has unfortunately morphed into mere NIMBYism. Many neighbors just don’t want change of any kind, even if it’s appropriate density near transit. Infill redevelopment is the name of the game in cities today, and there are a lot of hurdles to that, certainly for larger projects. The sense of ownership of parks has meant that a relatively simple renovation of a tennis facility in Central Park gets stopped in its tracks, and the city had a very hard time doing something that seemed fairly straightforward – moving the fountain in Washington Square Park so it is aligned with the arch.
Jacobs went on a tour of a housing project created in East Harlem in the 1950’s. Jacobs said: “I can remember the people in East Harlem hating a patch of green grass. I couldn’t understand why until one of them told me that the tobacco store had been torn down, the corner newsstand was gone, but someone decided the people needed a patch of green grass and put it there.” How can urban planners and landscape architects make sure green space is added where it’s not only needed, but wanted? How can design professionals best advocate for much-needed green space while not upsetting organically-created communities?

I think many of those lessons have long since been learned. In a major redevelopment of a railyard or industrial site, for example, the landscape architecture component of the team is very much aware of how to integrate open space and parks and playgrounds and pedestrian connections, and to make sure they’re not creating the kind of “useless” open space or barren plazas that Jacobs observed in East Harlem and elsewhere. It was a bit simpler, actually, in that case: she saw that what the residents needed was a human-scaled mix of uses and local businesses and stores, and all that was being wiped out and replaced by open space that wasn’t being used and indeed became forbidding dead zones in the city. The lessons of Lincoln Center and City Hall Plaza in Boston, as well, have also been learned – the space can’t be too big, it has to be accessible and welcoming for pedestrians at street level, and must facilitate connections as it is integrated into the urban fabric. The recent renovations at Lincoln Center address these themes; Post Office Square in Boston does as well. Bryant Park in New York is another fine example, in terms of being welcoming and having movable chairs.

bryant parkBryant Park, NYC / Walking off the Big Apple blog  

Design professionals today have advanced by leaps and bounds. I think the challenge for the 21st century park-making is doing all that on more difficult sites – Brownfields and reclaimed industrial waterfronts and so forth. In Boston we’re still figuring out how best to replace the demolished elevated Central Artery with functional open space on the Rose Kennedy Greenway. The emerging field of landscape urbanism, and the task of integrating green or sustainable elements in large parks as well, reflects all that we have learned since Jacobs first brought these issues to our attention, in a very promising way. The re-use of the elevated freight rail line in New York’s Meatpacking District, the High Line, is an extraordinary success, so wonderfully integrated into the existing urban environment as it is.

You write that Jacobs “analyzed what made a sucessful park – landscaping and amenities that adults and kids could actually use, smaller rather than bigger, and framed by “edges” of urban vitality rather than sweeping, windswept plazas.” What has been Jacob’s impact on landscape architecture? Are her views on designing public spaces for people still heeded or is it a continual battle to incorporate her values into projects?

I’ve suggested some of the ways Jane Jacobs had a big impact on landscape architecture, public spaces, and park-making. It starts with the concept that parks are for people. But in some ways it’s been a tricky exercise. Jacobs didn’t believe in big plans, and valued the way that Washington Square Park brought people together on a more informal basis. For Jacobs, it was a perfect example of an unplanned and organic space. The fountain basin and outer stone rim, she wrote, is “a circular arena, a theater in the round … with complete confusion as to who are spectators and who are the show. Everybody is both, although some are more so: guitar players, singers, crowds of darting children, impromptu dancers, sunbathers, conversers, show-offs, photographers, tourists, and mixed with them all a bewildering sprinkling of absorbed readers – not there for lack of choice, because quiet benches to the east are half-deserted.”

Jacob’s legacy in the design of public spaces permeates the development community today, the planning and parks departments of major cities, and is evident in the mission of at least three organizations -- the Congress for the New Urbanism, which promotes walkable, mixed-use development integrated with well-framed public spaces; the Center for the Living City, which encourages citizen engagement in neighborhood design including parks and open space; and perhaps most importantly, the Project for Public Spaces, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping communities build and sustain effective public spaces. I think her legacy has been to provide checks and balances against grandiosity, bringing back to center the more human-centered approach.

At one point, with the huge influx of funds for NYC park and infrastructure upgrades during the first WPA era, the “line of architects applying for jobs in the new city program of public works was two blocks long in front of the Parks Department headquarters on Fifth Avenue.” Given the state of the economy and U.S. infrastructure (which a major civil engineering association recently gave a D-rating for), does the U.S. need another type of major public works program to move towards more sustainable infrastructure? Have the recovery funds just been a drop in the bucket? Do we actually need another Robert Moses (and Jane Jacobs who can block the most damaging big ideas)?

The key question is what’s helpful for our cities, and what is damaging. In Jacobs’ time, I think it was fairly clear that the Lower Manhattan Expressway, blasting through today’s SoHo, was a bad idea. Today I would argue that any new highway is a bad idea, given our need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve energy, and promote urban density and transit. The Second Avenue subway line project is hugely expensive and disruptive, but I submit it’s exactly the kind of urban infrastructure we need. So yes, I argue in the book that we do need leaders with vision and an appreciation of the role of infrastructure in our cities – not for new highways and bridges to nowhere, but for repairing existing infrastructure and expanding transit, light rail, and inter-city rail. Most of all, I think, we need someone who can take that vision and navigate the bureaucracies the way Moses did, at the city, state, and federal level. Currently our system for planning such investments is counter-productive and pits states and cities against each other.

I think we need a new system of regional collaboration that reflects the central role of major metropolitan regions and their relationships to each other; the Lincoln Institute’s work on mega-regions, found at in partnership with the Regional Plan Association, provides a helpful framework – planning investments across boundaries as in the Boston-Washington corridor, for example. But we also need leadership at the federal level, where the challenges are even greater in terms of representation in Congress, pork, and earmarks.

We need a national plan for infrastructure and a way to pay for it, whether through an infrastructure bank or other means, including financing through value capture. Much of the stimulus package regrettably went for highways rather than transit. The upcoming re-authorization of federal transportation spending is the next big opportunity to transform the way we invest in urban transportation infrastructure, along with the climate bill, where any revenues from a cap-and-trade regime or carbon tax are plowed back into supporting our cities, our best hope for a sustainable future.

You also argue that Moses wasn’t all bad, quoting Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic of The New York Times: Moses’s vision (however flawed), represented an “America that still believed a healthy government would provide the infrastructure – roads, parks, bridge—that bind us into a nation. Ms. Jacobs, at her best, was fighting to preserve the more delicate bonds that tie us to a community. A city, to survive and flourish, needs both perspectives.”  Which countries and major urban areas have successfully adopted Jacob’s views on the value of density, mixed-use development, and public spaces designed for people? Which have gone the Moses route and invested in large-scale networks of parks and transportation infrastructure? Which countries have successfully struck this balance while they invest in urban development?

The European Union provides many lessons in spatial planning and territorial cohesion, investing in light rail and streetcars, and in Stockholm and London, of course, congestion pricing to limit private vehicle use in city centers. Asia has long since recognized the value of infrastructure and that is continuing; witness China’s proposal for high-speed rail linking Shanghai and Beijing. When the emphasis is on transit, the livable city follows, incorporating all of the Jacobs principles on mixed-use, density, walkable and bikable environments, access to transit, and the integration of functional green space and public space.

In the U.S., Portland, Oregon is a model; the combination of the urban growth boundary, increased density and a world-class transit system has led to dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. In Miami, the citywide rezoning effort, Miami 21, replaces the rules of development with a form-based code that promotes compact, mixed-use redevelopment. San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, Washington, and Boston are all making gains.

Other less likely places – Denver, Minneapolis, Charlotte, even Phoenix – are recognizing the value of urban centers supported by light rail. They are turning inward, building on their assets, and trying to re-work the car-based land-use planning that has enabled sprawl beyond the periphery. Some of these places used to have streetcars; they’re going back to the future.

Jacobs became increasingly interested in the relationship between the man-made and natural worlds, and was fascinated with fractals and chaos theory later in life. What would Jane Jacobs have thought about recent discussions on urban “green infrastructure” designed to integrate natural and human functions? Multi-use green infrastructure is now expected to produce energy, provide transportation, and create community through design.

That’s absolutely right – green infrastructure has a heavy burden, and is expected to accomplish myriad goals. Jacobs believed cities were complex economic organisms that in many ways couldn’t be planned. But not every place has the benefits and advantages of Greenwich Village. There are big gaps in the urban fabric, extensive vacant lots and opportunies for the kind of adaptive re-use of existing buildings that Jacobs advocated. The newly rejuvenated Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recognizes the complexity and the opportunity of this challenge.

It’s interesting to see recent developments in Cleveland and particularly Detroit in terms of urban farming on vacant and foreclosed properties – I think that’s more of a stop-gap measure, though an important element of this idea of the shrinking city. Other efforts to transition the manufacturing base to a new green energy economy will be fruitful, particularly if our cities can host wind turbine, solar panel or streetcar manufacturers in the future.

The trick is to support our cities with policies and investments that will help them consolidate their role as economic engines and population centers – after all all, about 85 percent of the population lives in metropolitan regions. It’s going to take creativity and innovation, particularly in public finance. The city of the 21st century will be the reinvented city.

Anthony Flint, author of "Wrestling with Moses: How Jane Jacobs Took On New York’s Master Builder and Transformed the American City" (Random House, 2009), is director of public affairs at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, a think tank in Cambridge, Mass. A journalist for 20 years, primarily at The Boston Globe, he is also author of "This Land: The Battle over Sprawl and the Future of America" (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). 

Interview conducted by Jared Green. 


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